Chewable vitamin C for kids and adults.

Chewable vitamin C for kids and adults. Credit: Moment Editorial/Getty Images / Nina Dermawan

In the midst of one the most ferocious flu epidemics in a decade — and rising rates of the common cold — about half of residents surveyed on Long Island and the greater metropolitan area say they turn to vitamins, essential oils and probiotics to keep viral illnesses at bay.

The revealing picture has emerged in a new poll commissioned by South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, which asked 600 area residents how they stayed healthy during cold and flu season. A surprising 39 percent said they had not gotten a flu shot but were vigilant about taking supplements.

“People are spending a lot of money on this stuff and none of it is regulated or proven,” said Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine at South Nassau. “I am a very big believer in evidence-based medicine and I need evidence before I will recommend something to a patient.”

Influenza is widespread on Long Island, according to statistics from the Nassau and Suffolk county health departments. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared this flu season the worst in a decade.

Glatt, a specialist in infectious diseases, said he’s shocked so many people shun flu shots but allow themselves to be seduced by supplement advertising.

“A big part of the problem is that people are always looking for an easy way: Just take this magic pill you’ll be fine. The supplements are marketed very well and there is no FDA regulation,” Glatt said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates prescription medications and medical devices, requiring years of clinical studies before either are allowed on the market.

Anyone can sell supplements. No rigorous studies are required, and many are sold amid outrageous claims, Glatt said.

The poll found that area residents are paying a minimum of $25 a month for supplements and that a vast swath of people on the Island and elsewhere in the region take them.

“Consumers are shelling out hundreds of dollars based on the recommendations of friends, family and the media,” said Dr. Adhi Sharma, South Nassau’s chief medical officer.

He said many people are not seeking their physicians’ opinions about supplement safety.

Dietary aids can interfere with important prescription medications, Sharma and Glatt said, but the poll found that supplement takers strongly believe widespread advertising about the effectiveness of supplements.

Many area residents turn to the old kitchen cabinet standby, vitamin C. Among those who take supplements, 85 percent said they consumed the vitamin daily, according to the survey.

Most cited popular drugstore brands, such as Emergen-C and Airborne.

Airborne, which comes in a flurry of flavors and a concoction that fizzes, alleges to be an “immune support” supplement. The company, now under new ownership, had been sued in the past for deceptive advertising.

The second most popular dietary aids taken by poll respondents were zinc-containing products, such as the over-the-counter supplement sold as Zicam. Twenty-six percent of area residents surveyed said they relied on zinc.

Zinc is needed for proper immune system function, but studies have been about its infection-fighting capacity remain mixed. Data from the Mayo Clinic suggest that people who consume zinc lozenges may reduce the common cold by one day. Zinc has no impact on the flu.

Last year, the hospital’s survey found that area residents acknowledged going to work sick rather than lose sick days to the flu. More than 40 percent of local residents also reported that they believed a flu shot can transmit the illness.

All of South Nassau’s surveys — Truth in Medicine Polls — are conducted quarterly by the independent polling firm, LJR Custom Strategies, which has offices in Washington, D.C. and New Orleans.

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