Sickle cell disease: Complementary and alternative medicines

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Learn about complementary and alternative medicines for sickle cell disease and what to do before trying a natural health product.

Key points

  • Complementary and alternative medicines are products that are taken with pharmacological medications.
  • Alternative medicines are products taken instead of pharmacological medications.
  • The main type of complementary and alternative medicines are natural health products, which include vitamins, minerals, herbs, homeopathic medicines, Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines, and supplements.
  • Always talk to your child's health-care provider before trying a natural health product. 'Natural' does not always mean 'safe'—the product may cause side effects or interact with your child's other medications.

What are complementary and alternative medicines?

Complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) are products that can be taken along with, or instead of, pharmacological medications.

Natural health products (NHPs) are the main type of complementary and alternative medicine. They include:

  • vitamins
  • minerals
  • herbs or other plant materials
  • homeopathic medicines
  • Chinese and Ayurvedic (East Indian) medicines
  • supplements such as probiotics, amino acids and essential fatty acids

They may come in pill, capsule, powder or liquid form and be sold in grocery, health food or drug stores.

What should you know about CAMs?

'Natural' does not always mean 'safe'

Many natural health products (NHPs) come from plant-based sources. However, ‘natural’ does not mean ‘safe’. For instance, some mushrooms and berries are natural but poisonous!

A natural health product may have side effects or interact with your child's pharmacological medications. In addition, some NHPs can actually cause harm. For example, the herbs kava and comfrey have been linked with severe liver damage.

Another reason NHPs are not recommended is that they are not as strictly regulated as some other medications. Researchers have found some safety issues with many types of common NHPs. For example, in some cases:

  • the bottle did not contain the ingredients listed on the label
  • the contents had very little of the active ingredient
  • the product was contaminated (tainted) with other chemicals

The current available evidence is not strong enough to recommend natural health products for sickle cell disease.

Talking to your child's health-care team about CAMs

You or your teen might think that their health-care provider doesn’t want them to try CAM therapies. Because of this, you might feel uncomfortable telling their health-care provider about plans to use CAMs. But it is important that their health-care team knows about all the treatments your child or teen is using. This is to minimize the risk of unexpected side effects or interactions with pharmacological medications or other standard sickle cell disease treatments.

What to do before your child or teen tries a natural health product

Talk to your child's health-care team

You or your teen should ask their health-care team for advice before trying any new product. What works for someone else might not work for your child or teen.

Even if a natural health product might work, you or your or teen should find out if it will be safe to take with their prescription or other over-the-counter medications.

Research the product

You or your teen should find out if there is scientific evidence about the effectiveness of the treatment and any side effects. It is important to get as much information as possible from independent sources, not just those providing the treatment.

Finally, you and/or your teen should find out how much the treatment will cost and check if their health insurance will cover it.


  • You and your teen should always weigh the potential benefits and risks of the treatment (including the costs) before deciding to try it.
  • Beware of complementary and alternative medicine practitioners who say they can cure diseases that do not respond to standard medical treatment.
Last updated: January 31st 2024