NEWS

FDA: How To Protect Your Family From Fraudulent Flu Products

person reading a label on over-the-counter medication

d3sign / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers to watch out for fraudulent flu products this flu season as they are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
  • Taking these products and delaying medical care could lead to a more serious illness.
  • The best defense against influenza (or the flu) is the FDA-approved flu vaccine—not over-the-counter supplements.

Flu season has arrived with vengeance in the U.S. with as many as 27 million people suffering from flu-related illnesses since October 1, 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

As consumers search for relief from their symptoms, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning them to beware of fraudulent flu products that claim to prevent, mitigate, treat, or cure the flu. These products—which might be labeled as supplements, foods, nasal sprays, or hand sanitizers—have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA and could be dangerous for you and your family.

"There are no legally marketed over-the-counter (OTC, or non-prescription) drugs to prevent, treat or cure the flu," says Audra Harrison, a spokesperson for the FDA. "But there are legally-marketed OTC drugs to reduce fever and to relieve muscle aches, congestion, and other symptoms typically associated with the flu."

Here's what you need to know about fraudulent flu products so that you can take steps to protect your family while finding the relief you or your family member needs.

What Is a Fraudulent Flu Product?

Fraudulent flu products are those products that claim to be effective in preventing or treating the flu even though they are not FDA-approved, says Keri Hurley-Kim, PharmD, MPH, BCACP, APh, associate clinical professor, School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of California Irvine. But many times, there is little to no clinical evidence to support their use.

Not only are these products' claims unproven, but they could cause uncomfortable side effects. They also could interfere with a person's prescription medications or cause an allergic reaction.

Claims Fraudulent Flu Products May Make

According to the FDA, you can identify potentially fraudulent products—which are sold without a prescription—by the claims they make. Some of these assertions might include:

  • Reducing the length and severity of the flu
  • Boosting your immunity naturally
  • Providing a safe alternative to the vaccine
  • Preventing you for getting the flu
  • Offering an effective treatment option for flu
  • Speeding up your recovery time
  • Supporting your body’s natural immune defenses

Is My Online Pharmacy Safe?

While legitimate online pharmacies do exist, there also are many online entities that are fraudulent and engaging in illegal activities. If you want to purchase your medications online, the best approach is to use only dispensaries that are recommended by a trusted member of your healthcare team, says Jennifer Bourgeois, PharmD, IHP, CFMS, FAIS, a clinical pharmacist and pharmacy expert at SingleCare as well as a functional medicine specialist and integrative health practitioner.

"Your local pharmacist and doctor can provide recommendations and the FDA’s BeSafeRx program can help provide guidance as well," says Dr. Bourgeois.

Only use sites that require you to provide a prescription, provide a physical street address in the United States, are licensed by the state in which you reside, and offer consultation with a licensed pharmacist, suggests Jodie Pepin, PharmD, the clinical pharmacy program director for Harbor Health.

"The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) also maintains a list of accredited digital pharmacies," Dr. Pepin adds. "Accredited digital pharmacies are the safest and include the legitimate online pharmacy services used by many health insurance companies."

The Danger of Fraudulent Flu Products

There are a number of reasons why it is not safe to use fraudulent flu products. For instance, there is very little known about how they are manufactured or if they have undisclosed ingredients that could cause adverse reactions or interfere with medications.

"They also may be manufactured without good manufacturing practices, that is, standardized methods that ensure purity and cleanliness," explains Dr. Hurley. "This can result in contamination or higher/lower dose of purported active ingredients than intended. In other words, it may be very difficult for consumers to know exactly what the product contains."

Using these unregulated and fraudulent products also may cause people to forgo or delay more effective or safer therapies such as vaccines or anti-virals, she adds. This practice of self-medication can cause flu infections to be more serious or difficult to treat.

FDA-Approved Medications For Flu

If you or a family member happen to get the flu, there are things you can take that are approved by the FDA. These FDA-approved antiviral drugs work best if they are started within 48 hours of your symptoms appearing. This is why it is so important not to delay treatment by relying on a fraudulent product.

"These prescription anti-virals are oseltamivir (Tamiflu), zanmivir (Relenza), and baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza)," explains Dr. Pepin. "They are all different, so your doctor will decide which is right for you based on age and pre-existing medical conditions."

These medications can reduce the duration of the flu by one or two days and lessen the severity of the flu symptoms or complications, she adds. But they may still offer benefits to prevent severe complications even when taken after the 48-hour window.

Of course, the best way to treat the flu is through preventative steps like getting vaccinated. The CDC recommends that everyone age 6 months and older get vaccinated every year against the flu. Vaccination is particularly important for young children and those with an increased risk for serious complications.

"There are a variety of vaccine formulations approved to prevent influenza," says Dr. Hurley. "The standard injectable vaccines are most common, but for patients who prefer to avoid needles, there is a nasal spray vaccine that can be used for most individuals between ages 2 and 49 years. It is important to note that while flu vaccines do not prevent all infections, those who are immunized are less likely to have severe symptoms or require hospitalization."

Are Supplements and Homeopathic Treatments Considered Fraudulent?

According to Harris, there are no FDA-approved homeopathic products. Any homeopathic products sold in the U.S. have not been approved by the FDA for any use and may not meet safety, effectiveness, and quality standards. Likewise, dietary supplements like echinacea, elderberry, and vitamin D are not regulated by the FDA in the same way as prescription medications.

"Supplements are not regulated by the FDA as drugs but are regulated as food," explains Dr. Bourgeois. "While many of these products may benefit overall health, these products are not allowed to make claims on impacting disease such as that it will 'shorten the duration of the flu or prevent illness.' And because there is no drug regulation, these products are often targeted by fraudsters."

According to Dr. Hurley, many non-prescription supplements and other products exist in something of a grey area with regard to fraudulent claims. They often use very carefully worded advertising that gives the impression of an effect without making a specific claim.

For example, they may say their product offers 'immune support' instead of saying 'prevent influenza.' They also may include standard language like: "This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease" as a disclaimer. But it is often in very small print that is not easily noticed, Dr. Hurley says.

"It should be noted that [while] certain products or ingredients may have an effect on viral infections, the U.S. invests very little in integrative medicine research," Dr. Hurley says. "Until we have more solid evidence from well-designed clinical trials and FDA review, patients should use supplements very cautiously in consultation with a medical provider and not in place of approved therapies or vaccines."

If you do purchase supplements, she recommends looking for those that are USP verified. "USP is an independent organization that tests products for purity, potency, and quality and can help assure consumers that the ingredients and doses in the product match those listed on the label without contamination."

What This Means For You

As the flu season ramps up, it is important to be on the lookout for fraudulent products claiming to prevent, mitigate, or treat flu symptoms. The only FDA-approved way to treat the flu is through antivirals available by prescription from a healthcare provider, or by getting a vaccine to prevent it. If you or a family member happens to get influenza this season, contact a healthcare provider as soon as symptoms appear rather than relying on potentially fraudulent products. Taking FDA-approved antivirals early can shorten the duration of the illness and help you feel better, while delaying treatment could lead to more severe illness and possibly complications.

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Protect your family from fraudulent flu products.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2022-2023 U.S. flu season: Preliminary in-season burden estimates.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Influenza antiviral medications: summary for clinicians.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Who needs a flu vaccine.

  5. Food and Drug Association. Homeopathic Products.

  6. Food and Drug Administration. FDA 101: Dietary Supplements.

  7. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA 101: Dietary supplements.

  8. Federal Trade Comission. Dietary supplements: an advertising guide for industry.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.