Complementary medicines include vitamin and mineral supplements, herbal medicines, traditional remedies including Chinese, Ayurvedic and bush medicines, homeopathic preparations, and some nutritional supplements including weight loss products.

Just like pharmaceutical medicines, complementary medicines can have side effects or interact with other medications or supplements you take. So if you are one of the many Australians who choose to use these products, you can do so safely by keeping the following points in mind:

  • Always tell your doctor about any complementary medicines you are using and why you are taking them – make a list to take to your appointment or take the bottles with you. Studies have shown that many people taking supplements never tell their doctor and many doctors don’t ask about them.
  • Find out if there’s any reliable evidence for the use of the supplement.
  • Speak to your doctor about whether the supplement is safe for you. Could it interact with any of your prescription medications or affect any medical conditions you have?
  • Know the right dose, including how much and how often you should take it.
  • Be aware of any side effects and when you should stop taking it. For example, fish oil can cause blood thinning and might need to be stopped if you have surgery.
  • Choose a reputable brand, preferably manufactured in Australia.
  • If you are planning to start more than one new complementary medicine product, start one at a time so that if there are benefits or side effects, you will be able to pinpoint which one was responsible.

Another important consideration is where you purchase complementary medicines. While buying products over the internet might be tempting because of a lower price or easier availability, it can be risky. With overseas sites, the safety and quality of products may not comply with strict Australian standards, the manufacturing processes are unknown and there is no local point of contact in case you have problems. So even at a higher price, shopping for Australian-made products locally is a safer bet.

In Australia, complementary medicines are regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). This is a two-tiered system based on risk. Most complementary medicines are considered low risk, so are ‘listed’ medicines, while most prescription and over-the-counter medications are considered high risk, so are ‘registered’ medicines.  Once approved, complementary medicines are included in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) and are labelled with a number starting with AUSTL. The TGA assess listed medicines for safety and quality but not for efficacy, although the manufacturers of listed medicines are required to have data to support the claims they make for their product. To ensure quality and safety, the product must only contain ingredients from a pre-approved list that the TGA has already assessed for safety and quality and must be manufactured in a certified facility that meets quality standards.

For more information, watch this short video from the TGA: Department of Health and Aged Care: Buying Medicine and Medical Devices Online


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