A side effect of the current active and sometimes deadly influenza season? Flu scams, which apparently are spreading nearly as quickly as the germs.
So say officials from the federal Food and Drug Administration, who recently formally warned consumers about red flags that might signal flu fraud.
Scammers, they say, are promoting products with claims that they prevent, treat or cure the flu, even though the products haven’t been tested and the agency has not approved them.
The products, officials say, are being sold online and in retail stores and may include dietary supplements, foods such as herbal teas, over-the-counter drugs, nasal sprays or devices such as air filters or light therapies.
One such product is the GermBullet, a nasal inhaler that officials say makes unapproved claims that it prevents and treats the flu. Officials from the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission, which polices advertising claims, recently sent a warning letter to the company to stop marketing the product that way.
Also, some products are claiming to be an alternative to flu vaccine, says Mary Malarkey, director of FDA’s Office of Compliance and Biologics Quality.
There is no need to buy a product that claims to be an alternative to the vaccine, she says. Flu vaccine is still available and it’s not too late to get vaccinated.
Federal health officials recommend vaccination for adults and children older than 6 as the only way to prevent flu – at least the strains of the flu included in the vaccine.
Two FDA-approved prescription drugs to treat the flu in children and adults are Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanavir). Both are also approved to prevent flu.
Taken within the first two days of symptoms, Tamiflu eases flu severity.
But officials say to beware of online pharmacies that sell generic Tamiflu or Relenza, or promise deep discounts, says FDA pharmacist Connie Jung.
Currently there are no FDA-approved generics available for these drugs on the U.S. market, she says. With unapproved products, you really don’t know what you’re getting and can’t be sure of the quality.
The products could be counterfeit, contaminated or have the wrong active ingredient or no active ingredient. You could experience a bad reaction, or not receive the drug you need to get better.
No legally marketed nonprescription drugs treat or prevent flu, FDA officials say. However, many products can ease symptoms of flu – fever, muscle aches and congestion – and may legally claim to do so.
At a glanceHere is the FDA’s list of red-flag flu claims on an unapproved product that indicate it may be fraudulent:
Reduces severity and length of flu
Boosts your immunity naturally without a flu shot
Is a safe and effective alternative to flu vaccine
Prevents catching the flu
Effectively treats or gives a faster recovery from flu
Supports your body’s natural immune defenses to fight off flu