Chinese medicine has been around for thousands of years, but like all health products, it has risks and side effects. Here are 5 tips to use them safely.
Chinese Proprietary Medicines (CPM) refer to medicinal products, used according to the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) system of treatment, that have been manufactured into finished dosage forms (for example, tablets, capsules, pills). The finished products contain Chinese herbs, animal parts and/or minerals as active ingredients.
CPM are generally safe for consumption if they are taken according to the appropriate dosage guidelines or instructions on the product label or as advised by the TCM practitioner. However, as with any other health product, they also have risks and may cause side effects.
One of the most common misconceptions is that CPM is safer than western medicines because they contain natural ingredients. While it is true that most natural ingredients are relatively safe, some herbs, animal parts or minerals are documented to contain components that are potent and can be harmful to humans when taken inappropriately. Taking CPM and other health products concurrently without medical supervision may be dangerous. Interactions between CPM and western medicines can result in unwanted effects, such as reducing the body's absorption of either one of the medicines.
In today's globalised world, health products, including CPM, are easily obtained via the Internet or illegal sources such as makeshift stalls. Products from such sources are likely to be manufactured illegally in underground factories without quality control. Tests by the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) on such products have shown that individual tablets/capsules/pills sold in the same bottle or packet could well contain ingredients inconsistent with what is stated on the label. They may also be contaminated with banned toxic substances. Because of poor quality controls, the contents of each product may vary greatly from batch to batch.
In order to ensure the safety and quality of CPM in Singapore, all local CPM dealers (i.e., importers, manufacturers, wholesalers and re-packers) must be licensed by HSA. Dealers must also apply for product listing approval for each CPM before they can import, manufacture and/or sell the products in Singapore.
To get their products successfully listed with HSA, dealers must meet relevant safety and quality requirements for their CPM. For example, dealers must ensure that the products do not contain any potent/toxic substances controlled under the Poisons Act, any synthetic chemical compounds found in western medicines, excessive levels of toxic heavy metals (e.g. arsenic, mercury, lead) and microbial contamination.
In line with the approach adopted in the regulatory systems of developed countries, there is also a post-market surveillance programme in place to monitor the safety of CPM. It has two components:
This system of checks and controls has enabled HSA to initiate timely recalls of harmful and inferior quality products.
Read the product insert and package so that you know its purpose and what it contains. Do not buy the product if you do not understand the product label or how to take the product safely. It is always best to talk to a medical professional if you need to clarify anything about the product. Under HSA's regulatory requirements, all CPM must be labelled in English and include important information such as the product's trade/brand name, product name, batch number, expiry date, active ingredients, and dosage. The labels must also include a bilingual advisory note to consumers.
There should be no claims for treating a specified list of serious medical conditions, such as cancer and diabetes. If you are suffering from any serious medical conditions, please seek medical attention promptly and do not self-medicate with CPM. For more information on the labelling requirements for CPM, including the specified list of serious medical conditions that CPM cannot make claims on, please refer to
Be wary of marketing claims like the following:
Even common herbs can cause allergic reactions in some people. Also, people may react differently to the same product.
Most CPM ingredients have not been tested to find out if they interact with western medicines, other traditional medicines or health supplements. If you are currently on any medication, do talk to your doctor or physician if you are planning to take a CPM product as well.
Due to the emergence of innovative CPM, as well as product contamination which may occur randomly, having a long history of use in TCM practise may not mean that the CPM is absolutely safe. In addition, people may react differently to the same product.
Do not buy a CPM product locally if it has not been listed with HSA. When in doubt, you can check with the product supplier or do a search on the listed CPM in Singapore at the following
Do not put yourself at risk by purchasing products from the Internet, mail orders, street peddlers, or even well-meaning friends or relatives. Be wary when buying CPM while you are overseas too. Not only will it be difficult for you to contact the sellers, you will not be able to determine the reputation of the dealer nor be sure of the quality of the products sold.
These individuals should exercise extra caution when using CPM. CPM carry information on the documented side effects (e.g. nausea, vomiting) and contraindications (e.g. pregnancy, lactation) on their product labels for consumers to make an informed choice when purchasing these products. When in doubt, talk to a medical professional. In general, CPM should not be administered to infants less than 12 months of age unless advised by TCM practitioners.
If you are scheduled for a surgical operation, inform your doctor about any CPM you are taking. Some products may interfere or interact with anaesthetics and other medicines used during the surgery. You may also be required to stop taking these products before the operation.
HSA has received adverse reaction reports of patients who had consumed complementary medicines, including CPM purchased overseas, through online platforms or well-meaning friends and has issued press releases to warn the public.
In January 2016, it was reported that a patient in his 40s was hospitalised for Cushing's syndrome (which is characterised by round face or 'moon face' and upper body obesity with thin limbs), joint pain, weight gain and insomnia after consuming a health product he bought overseas. Another patient experienced rapid relief of his joint pain after consuming 'Huang Niu Mu Shi Ni De Jiu Xing', a Chinese medicine from overseas.
Both products did not have a list of ingredients on their labels, which CPMs are required to carry. The products were purchased overseas and had claimed to be able to treat various forms of chronic ailments, such as arthritis, liver disorders, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke. A potent steroid, dexamethasone, which is usually prescribed for inflammatory conditions and should only be used under strict medical supervision, was detected in both products. The steroid was not declared on the product labels, making this an adulterated CPM. Its presence could have contributed to the reactions in the patients and may worsen any existing medical conditions that patients may have.
In December 2009, HSA reported that a 50-year-old woman was hospitalised for swollen throat and 'moon face' (round face) after using the product 'Huo Luo Jing Dan'.
This product was promoted as Chinese medicine to relieve painful conditions like rheumatism and arthritis. Through laboratory testing, three potent undeclared western medicinal ingredients, namely indomethacin, dexamethasone and prednisolone, were found. Unsupervised use of these medicines can lead to weak bones and fractures, severe infection, increased blood pressure, stomach ulcers and bleeding, and kidney failure.
The woman had bought the product from a friend, who subsequently became uncontactable.
Investigations revealed that the manufacturer as labelled on the product did not even exist.
If you suspect that the CPM product you are taking is making you unwell or causing side effects, stop taking it immediately. Consult a medical professional and bring along your CPM.
You can also get in touch with the HSA at Tel: 1800 2130 800 or Email:
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This article was last reviewed on
22 Nov 2023
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