‘Herbal Viagra’ is not Viagra

(CNN) — When employees at a Nevada brothel found former NBA star Lamar Odom unresponsive on Tuesday, they told the 911 dispatchers that he had been using cocaine on Saturday. He also took “10 sexual performance enhancer supplements” within a three-day period according to Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly.

The Sheriff’s department was not sure exactly which supplements he used. According to the 911 recording,Odom took “Reload 72-hour strong sexual enhancement for men,” but the department is still investigating. It took blood samples to examine exactly what was in Odom’s system.

In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers not to use a product named “Reload” as it contained sildenafil, the active ingredient in the FDA-approved prescription drug Viagra, which wasn’t listed as an ingredient on the label and could interact poorly with other drugs.

If you click on the link for “Reload” on the FDA warning page it takes you to a website. Use Google translate and instead of selling a supplement to treat erectile dysfunction, the page promises to help you “meet amateur women in a completely free dating site.”

While cocaine may have played a role in Odom being unresponsive, the experts say you should avoid sexual performance enhancing supplements, also sometimes called “herbal Viagra,” (not to be confused with the actual prescription drug) at all costs.

“If someone were to ask about them, I would caution them not to take anything of this type. They are ineffective and the men could possibly be submitting themselves to danger,” said Dr. Drogo K. Montague, who works with the Cleveland Clinic’s Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute. “They come under the rubric of really bad ideas.”

Men may be tempted to buy the products since you don’t need a prescription for them and they are often cheaper than prescription drugs. They are also plentiful. You can buy so-called “herbal Viagra” nearly anywhere: online, at sex shops, Chinese medicine shops, and even gas stations. They are often sold under cheeky names such as “Happy Passengers,” “3 Hard Knights,” or “Dick’s Hard Up.” They may appeal to men because they claim to be “natural,” although that’s usually not the case, Montague said.

The FDA has issued warnings to consumers not to take these products and dozens of others. Often they are tainted. Studies have found that the herbal drugs on the market have included heavy metals, pesticides, printer ink, and commercial paint, according to Dr. Irwin Goldstein a sexual dysfunction doctor in San Diego.

A 2013 study done with the help of a division of Pfizer, the company that makes the real Viagra, found that many of the so called “herbal” drugs they sampled actually contained the active ingredient in Viagra or contained tadalafil, the active ingredient in Cialis and Adcirca, even though this was not listed on the label. This could be dangerous especially if men are taking drugs containing nitrates. The combination of a supplement that has Viagra in it could make a person’s blood pressure drop so low it could lead to death. Taking too much of any herbal supplement or medication is dangerous.

Related: Deadly fake Viagra: Online pharmacies suspected of selling counterfeit drugs

“Because they are not approved, like drugs, we can’t know what is in it,” said Alexander Garrard the clinical managing director of the Washington Poison Center. “And keep in mind just because it is called ‘herbal’ doesn’t make it safe.”

Supplements are not regulated the same way prescription pharmaceuticals are in this country. They don’t have to meet the strict scientific standards that regular drugs do before they go to market, nor do companies have to prove to the FDA that they work. Technically these companies are supposed to inform the FDA what is in their products. Experts say they often don’t.

About 23,000 people end up at the Emergency Room a year due to some kind of complication from taking dietary supplements, according to a new study from the New England Journal of Medicine, but sexual enhancement products only accounted for 3.4% of those visits.

There were around 813 calls to poison center lines in 2013 related to what the centers classify as “other types of Vasodilator,” a medication that opens blood vessels according to a report from the association that represents poison centers, the AAPCC. The report does not distinguish if these were calls about “herbal Viagra” or actual prescription “Viagra” or both and not all problems related to taking these drugs are reported to poison centers or send someone to the ER.

Most of the time men who take “herbal Viagra” are “probably not subjecting themselves to too much danger,” Montague said. “But we don’t know what they are taking, and there is a whole class of things available in them that may be dangerous.”

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