Complementary medicines are medicines too

8 September 2011

Complementary medicines such as herbal supplements and vitamins are often considered less powerful than prescription medicines, but can still cause side effects in some people, and may interact with other medicines and food, according to NPS.

The latest edition of MedicinesTalk, published by NPS, an independent organisation encouraging people to be medicinewise, includes an article on finding answers about complementary medicines.

NPS Head of Programs, Ms Karen Kaye, says complementary or natural medicines should be given the same consideration as other medicines, despite the fact that information about them can often be harder to find.

“When someone is selecting a medicine – whether prescription, over-the-counter or complementary – they should ask questions about whether a medicine is needed in the first place, how effective the medicine might be for their condition, and what the possible side effects could be,” said Ms Kaye.

People can get answers to these questions by talking to their doctor, pharmacist, or complementary health care provider about the medicine they’re considering taking, and asking whether they think it might be beneficial.

No medicine, even natural and herbal medicines, is completely free of side effects. For example valerian, a herb that is sometimes used to improve sleep, can cause headaches and vivid dreams, and echinacea, sometimes used to ward off infections and reduce the duration of colds, may worsen asthma.

“It’s also important to ask questions about whether the complementary medicine might interact with any other medicines or food, and what the right dose is for your individual situation,” said Ms Kaye.

St John’s wort, for example, is used to alleviate depression, but can interact with several commonly used prescription medicines including the oral contraceptive pill, the heart medicine digoxin, the blood-thinning medicine warfarin, and some other antidepressant medicines.

“Your doctor and pharmacist need to know about all your medicines so they can consider any possible interactions when recommending other medicines for you. Make sure you tell them about any complementary medicines you are taking, and include them on your Medicines List so you have a record,” said Ms Kaye.

Other articles in the latest edition of MedicinesTalk cover gadgets to help with taking medicines, what to do with unused medicines, and how to find out your heart and stroke risk score. To read the full articles, go to

For more information about your medicines, call the Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424).

For verbal translation assistance call the Translating and Interpreting Service on 131 450.


Independent, evidence-based and not-for-profit, NPS enables better decisions about medicines and medical tests.We are funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.