PURPOSE: The use of phytotherapy is growing worldwide, but the popular perception is that this kind of approach is natural and therefore safer than traditional medicine; for this reason the use is frequently not communicated to the doctor. Instead, even if many herbal remedies are benign in nature, some of these therapies have potentially harmful side effects or adverse interactions with other medications. So, the purpose of our study was to analyze the behavior patterns and decision-making modalities about herbal remedy use among a sample of Italian women. METHODS: During a 5-month period, interviews to women attending the outpatient ambulatory of an urban university general hospital were made on the basis of a pre-structured 25-item questionnaire. RESULTS: Among a random study population of 1,044 subsequent patients, 491 women (47.03%) reported to have been taking one or more herbal products in the last year, sometimes used during pregnancy or given to their children (35.23%). The 10 most frequently used herbal products reported were propolis, aloe, valerian root, blueberry, fennel, dandelion, mallow, arnica, thyme, and Echinacea. The major purposes for using these products were to stimulate the immune system and to cure respiratory problems. 47/491 (9.57%) women reported side effects, but only 36% referred to the doctor. In most of the cases, herbal products were taken in combination with drugs (44.61%) or homeopathic treatments (11.81%). The majority of our women did not obtain information about this kind of therapy from a health care provider (72.71%). CONCLUSIONS: The present survey highlights the general use of phytomedicines by a sample of Italian women, the potential risk of their confidence with the 'natural world,' and the lack of discussion on this argument with doctors and pharmacists. This suggests the importance of training for health care providers and the need of informational programs for consumers.
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