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South Nassau Truth in Medicine Poll: Many Report Taking Supplements in Attempt to Prevent Cold, Flu but 39 Percent of Those Still Avoid Flu Shot

Vitamin C Overwhelming Choice to Ward Off Infection / Nearly One-Third do not Inform Their Doctors of Supplement Use

Posted: Feb. 8, 2018

Almost half of metro area New Yorkers surveyed in a new poll report taking unregulated dietary supplements such as vitamins, essential oils and probiotics- some in attempt to ward off colds and the flu - but 39 percent of those who take supplements for that purpose have not had a flu shot, according to South Nassau’s latest Truth in Medicine Poll.

The flu shot is considered the single best preventive method against the flu, a sometimes-deadly disease. “Benefit from cold supplements have never been truly proven to help boost your immunity against colds, whereas flu vaccine is proven to prevent the flu,” said Dr. Aaron E. Glatt, South Nassau’s Department of Medicine Chair and Hospital Epidemiologist, who also is a spokesman for the Infectious Disease Society of America.

Other key findings from the poll include:

  • Some 44 percent of respondents who take supplements reported spending more than $25 per month on these supplements
  • More than 70 percent of those who take supplements to fight cold and flu act on their own – often on the recommendation from a friend or family member, rather than a doctor.
  • Nearly a third do not inform their doctors about their supplement use.
  • Some 15 percent said that advertising prompted them to take a supplement to ward off colds and flu.

The South Nassau Truth in Medicine Poll, sponsored by Bethpage Federal Credit Union, is a quarterly survey of 600 Long Island and New York City residents that aims to gather data about public attitudes on key public health topics and help spur public education to improve public health.

The South Nassau Truth in Medicine Poll this month focuses on the multi-billion-dollar supplements industry, a largely unregulated and sometimes consumer-confounding marketplace.

A majority (54 percent) of those who take an anti-cold or flu supplement do so daily, while 25 percent take it only when needed. Those who take something to prevent colds and flu are fairly confident that it works, with 39 percent saying the supplements are very effective and 53 percent saying they are somewhat effective.

Vitamin C is overwhelmingly the most popular supplement choice, with 85 percent of respondents who take supplements to defend against cold and flu saying they take it. Vitamin C includes popular drugstore brands like Emergen-C® and Airborne®. Zinc, including the popular Zicam®, follows Vitamin C at 26 percent as the second most popular supplement.

“While a supplement like Vitamin C is safe to take if you are traveling or are in close contact with friends or family who have colds or flu, other supplements, especially herbal supplements, should always be cleared by your primary care doctor or other physician,” said Dr. Adhi Sharma, South Nassau’s chief medical officer.

New York State is seeing a surge in flu cases this year, with 11,683 laboratory confirmed influenza cases reported to the New York State Department of Health and 2,221 New Yorkers hospitalized with confirmed influenza. Gov. Cuomo recently signed an executive order allowing pharmacists to administer flu vaccines to children ages 2 to 18, increasing vaccine accessibility. In January 2017, South Nassau’s first Truth in Medicine poll revealed that many metro area residents go to work even if they have the flu despite an awareness by an overwhelming majority that the flu virus is spread person to person. Some 42 percent also incorrectly believed you can get the flu from the flu shot.

“Although the flu shot may not be 100 percent effective, it will help reduce the severity of the flu and its symptoms. Considering the high prevalence of the flu and the fact that it will carry on into April, if you haven’t been vaccinated, yet, please do so; it is never too late to get vaccinated,” Dr. Glatt added.

The poll also showed that more than one-third (36 percent) of parents currently give their children supplements, and 39 percent of that group is doing so without a doctor’s recommendation. Parents in Long Island are more likely to give their children supplements than parents in New York City. While those who take supplements themselves are more likely to give their children supplements, 18 percent of parents who do not take supplements still choose to give them to their children.

The poll also showed that 62 percent of supplement takers are aware that the products are not regulated by the FDA, but remain unconcerned. Only 29 percent of all respondents say they are concerned a lot (8 percent) or some (21 percent) about the lack of FDA regulation. Supplement-takers are even less concerned, with only 4 percent saying it concerns them a lot.

“The supplement industry is growing by leaps and bounds, and consumers are shelling out hundreds of dollars based on the recommendations of friends, family and the media, oftentimes not asking for their doctor’s opinion on how these supplements can interact with other prescriptions they may be taking,” said Sharma.

Advertising also plays a meaningful role in supplement choice, with 15 percent indicating that an ad prompted them to take a supplement to ward off colds and flu. The US supplement industry contributes billions to our economy, yet surprisingly receives little regulation or oversight. Supplements include not just vitamins, but herbal supplements like weight-loss pills. Unlike prescription drugs, which have to be prescribed by a clinician and go through rigorous rounds of clinical trials, supplements go through no such review and do not receive FDA approval. The FDA does have oversight over labeling.

The South Nassau Truth in Medicine Poll, sponsored by Bethpage Federal Credit Union, was conducted via both landlines and cell phones from January 2-5 with 600 adults in New York City and on Long Island. The poll was conducted as part of the hospital’s mission of improving education around critical public health issues. The poll was conducted by a nationally recognized, independent polling firm, LJR Custom Strategies, which has offices in Washington, DC and New Orleans, LA. LJR has conducted more than 2,000 studies for a broad spectrum of health care, business, education, cultural, and political clients in almost every state in the country and around the world.

“The South Nassau Truth in Medicine Poll is meant to shine a light on public health issues that deserve more attention,” said Richard J. Murphy, South Nassau’s president & CEO. “We are greatly appreciative to have the support and sponsorship of Bethpage Federal Credit Union, which shares in our commitment to advance public education on supplements and other key health topics.”

This is South Nassau’s first public health poll of 2018. In 2017, South Nassau completed four public health polls. The ultimate goal of the Truth in Medicine Poll is to educate the public about health issues so they can take better care of themselves and seek out appropriate medical care when needed.

“Bethpage is proud to help shine a light on key health concerns that impact our community, including the much debated use of unregulated dietary supplements,” said Linda Armyn, Senior Vice President, Corporate Affairs, Bethpage. “This year especially, we are seeing just how important the flu vaccination is. People need to be informed and that is exactly what the South Nassau Truth in Medicine Poll is intended to do. We applaud South Nassau’s efforts.”

The South Nassau poll found a slight variation of attitudes about supplements that at times broke down along gender, age and racial lines. The poll found that:

  • White adults are far more likely to take a supplement than people of color
  • Two-thirds of men age 50 and over take supplements, compared to 53 percent of women age 50+. Men also spend more money than women.
  • Only 41 percent of women under 50 and 37 percent of men under 50 take supplements

Even if you have gotten the flu vaccination, you may still come into contact with someone who has the flu. So what can you do to prevent yourself from getting the flu? Flu can be spread very easily from person to person. Regularly wash your hands. Protect your environment.

“Just as important, people who are sick or are experiencing symptoms of the flu should see their primary care physicians, then stay home and not expose others,” said Dr. Glatt. “For individuals who are considered at greater risk of catching the flu and may have been exposed to it, prophylactic (preventive) treatment with a prescription drug (Tamiflu) may be necessary, which can be prescribed by your doctor.”

Designated a Magnet® hospital by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) for outstanding nursing care, South Nassau® Communities Hospital is one of the region’s largest hospitals, with 455 beds, more than 900 physicians and 3,500 employees. Located in Oceanside, NY, the hospital is an acute-care, not-for-profit teaching hospital that provides state-of-the-art care in cardiac, oncologic, orthopedic, bariatric, pain management, mental health and emergency services.

In addition to its extensive outpatient specialty centers, South Nassau provides emergency and elective angioplasty, and offers Novalis Tx™ and Gamma Knife® radiosurgery technologies. South Nassau operates the only Trauma Center on the South Shore of Nassau County verified by the American College of Surgeons as well as Long Island’s only free-standing, 9-1-1 receiving Emergency Department in Long Beach. South Nassau is the only hospital on Long Island in 2018 to achieve Healthgrades America’s 100 Best Hospitals for Orthopedic Surgery™, Orthopedic Surgery Excellence Award™ and 5-star rating for Total Hip Replacement, and it was one of just two hospitals on Long Island to achieve Healthgrades 5-stars in Hip Fracture Treatment. South Nassau also is a designated Stroke Center by the New York State Department of Health and Comprehensive Community Cancer Center by the American College of Surgeons, and is an accredited center of the Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Association and Quality Improvement Program. In addition, the hospital has been awarded The Joint Commission’s gold seal of approval for disease-specific care for hip and knee replacement, heart failure, bariatric surgery, wound care and end-stage renal disease. For more information, visit southnassau.org.