ATLANTA — Just like their parents, kids are taking herbal supplements including fish oil and ginseng, a sign of just how mainstream alternative medicine has become.
More than 1 in 9 children and teens try those remedies and other nontraditional options, the government said Wednesday in its first national study of young people's use of these mostly unproven treatments.
Given that children are generally healthy, the finding that so many of them use alternative medicine is "pretty amazing," said one of the study's authors, Richard Nahin of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The sweeping study suggests about 2.8 million young people use supplements.
Their parents' practices played a big role. Kids were five times more likely to use alternative therapies if a parent or other relative did. The same study showed that more than a third of adults use alternative treatments, roughly the same as in a 2002 survey.
The researchers used a big umbrella in defining alternative medicine: Acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic care, traditional healing, yoga, Pilates, deep breathing, massage and even dieting were included.
Vitamin and mineral supplements are not considered alternative medicine, nor are prayer or folk medicine practices.
Herbal remedies were the leading type of alternative therapy for both adults and those younger than 18. Among children, such therapies were most often given for head or neck pain, colds and anxiety. Body aches and insomnia were other top reasons they were given alternative therapies, the study found.
Fish oil for hyperactivity and echinacea for colds were the most popular supplements, although there's no proof such treatments work for those conditions, nor have they been tested in children.
Nahin cited the lack of rigorous scientific testing in declining to call such widespread use harmful or beneficial. Unlike federally regulated medicines, herbal remedies don't have to be proven safe or effective to be sold. And studies that have been done on them have focused on adults, not children.
But some doctors are troubled that parents may be giving children alternative therapies in place of proven clinical treatments, said Dr. Wallace Sampson, an emeritus clinical professor of medicine at Stanford University.
"The reality is none of these things work, including some of the more popular ones. They're placebos," said Sampson, who was a founding editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine.
The study was done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is based on a 2007 survey of more than 23,000 adults who were speaking about themselves and more than 9,000 who were speaking on behalf of a child in their household.
Medical doctors need to be careful about attacking alternative medicine because some long-endorsed pharmaceutical products have turned out to be treatment failures, noted Dr. Kathi Kemper, a pediatrician at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
For example, drug makers in October announced they no longer would recommend cough and cold medicines for children younger than 4, acknowledging there is scant evidence that they work in children and that in some cases, they might be dangerous.
"We have a pretty spotty history of being evidence-based ourselves," said Kemper, who chairs an American Academy of Pediatrics committee on complementary and integrative medicine.
The cough medicine debacle is no rationale for embracing alternative medicine, said Dr. Seth Asser, who consults with a nonprofit organization opposed to faith healing and other religious practices used in lieu of conventional medicine.
"Two wrongs don't make a right," he said, adding that he believes there's a "can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality toward alternative medicine among some doctors and hospital administrators.
There were some differences in how the 2002 and 2007 surveys were done. On the topic of herbal remedies, the 2007 study asked people whether they had used such a product in the previous 30 days, while the 2002 study asked if they had taken it in the last year.
That change may partly explain why adult use of some herbal remedies shifted significantly from 2002 to 2007. For example, echinacea use declined, but most people don't suffer colds year-round. But news of the scientific failures of some remedies may also have an effect. A rigorous study in 2005 found that echinacea failed to prevent or treat colds.
Fish oil use was up. Some recent studies have suggested it can reduce heart disease risks, protect the eyes and provide other benefits.
"We think the public is listening to this data," Nahin said.