The dangers of alternative medicines

Updated February 21, 2017

Alternative medicine can be popular with people who dislike the effects of conventional medicine. Sometimes with no side effects at all, such as with homeopathy, alternative medicine can appear attractively safe, but behind the natural facade, the use of alternative medicines can sometimes lead to serious health issues and even death.

Intrinsic danger

Due to the fact that conventional medicines tend to have measurable effects on the body, they can cause noticeable side effects, and it is these side effects, and the synthetic nature of many medicines, which are unpalatable to a lot of patients, compared to the safer sound of a herbal remedy, for example. Despite this impression, though, the NHS states that "Like most conventional medicines, CAM (Complementary and Alternative) medicines can have side effects."

Danger of interaction

When a person takes an alternative remedy for an illness, or even for general wellbeing, any biologically active substance in the medicine can potentially interact with other substances, such as vitamin pills or conventional medicines. Without the rigorous testing background that conventional medicines have, what the alternative product is really doing inside the body is unknown.

Danger of omission

Choosing not to take medicine for an ailment is the right of the patient, but it can backfire on a person who takes an ineffective alternative medicine in place of an effective conventional medication. When the illness is a mere cold, then no real harm has been done, but when a person is suffering from a dangerous disease such as cancer, then shunning medicine that has been proven to work through controlled trials in favour of an alternative therapy can be the choice that results in death.

Variation in strength

"Many alternative medicines are classified as food supplements and are therefore not subject to regulations governing conventional medicines," says the NHS. Normal medications are tested to make sure that the active ingredient in each pill, for example, is standardised to a known quantity, such as 500 milligrams of paracetamol per tablet. Natural remedies such as dried herbs can vary in strength depending on the source of the herb, the time of year it was harvested, and the manner in which it was prepared. This gives rise to the possibility that either the product may contain too low a level of active ingredient, or a dangerously high level.

Dangers in preparation

Although many alternative medicines are made by reputable companies with strong quality control processes, the levels of regulation for alternative health manufacturers are not to the standard of governmental regulation of conventional medicines. While there is little risk that a pharmaceutical drug is contaminated with potentially dangerous substances due to the high standards of manufacturing, it is possible that the less stringent regulations in the alternative medicine world may cause contamination to be overlooked.

Fostering distrust of conventional medicine

The ubiquitous presence of alternative medicine in pharmacies, and the acceptance of therapies such as homeopathy on the NHS can give the impression that alternative medicines are equal to conventional medicines when it comes to treating illnesses. In fact, there is little evidence that alternative medicines such as homeopathy, herbal remedies and some food supplements are beneficial treatments.

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About the Author

Jillian O'Keeffe has been a freelance writer since 2009. Her work appears in regional Irish newspapers including "The Connacht Tribune" and the "Sentinel." O'Keeffe has a Master of Arts in journalism from the National University of Ireland, Galway and a Bachelor of Science in microbiology from University College Cork.