When businesswoman Lynette Maclean heard about a vitamin drip which promised to boost her ‘radiance, vitality and immunity’, not surprisingly she wanted to give it a try.
Fresh off an 11-hour return flight after a two-week holiday in Mexico, £80 seemed a small price to pay for the ‘wellness drip’ that she hoped would get rid of any jetlag in time to return to work the next day.
While a vitamin drip seemed much more medical than the other services, such as dermal fillers, offered at the swish beauty clinic recommended by a friend, Lynette assumed that surely such an invasive technique must be strictly regulated.
When she arrived for her treatment, the certificates on the wall also persuaded her that the therapist who put a cannula in her arm to inject a cocktail of saline, vitamins and minerals into her veins must be highly trained.
But far from feeling more refreshed, within minutes of the contents of the yellow drip bag being emptied into her bloodstream last September, Lynette found herself feeling faint.
Lynette, 38, from Dumfries, says: ‘I was so dizzy that as soon as I got off the therapy bed, I had to sit down again.
‘The therapist told me to have a glass of water and said I’d be fine. I was told they’d had a few patients who’d had a similar reaction but it would pass.’
Instead, for the next two days, far from being able to bounce back to work, Lynette was unable to get out of bed.
‘I was vomiting a clear liquid all night and had diarrhoea. I also got a bad rash on my arm, as well as bruising around the place when the drip had been inserted.
‘My husband tried to persuade me to go to A&E but I couldn’t walk to the car to get to the hospital.
‘Instead, my doctor visited me at home. He said it was possible the bag was mixed wrongly or my body had a bad reaction. It took me quite a few days to feel right again, presumably until my body got rid of the mixture from my system.’
Over the past five years the High-Street vitamin drip industry has been steadily growing, thanks in part to reports of celebrities like Gywneth Paltrow, Madonna and Adele using them, and Love Island contestants insisting they are a must-have on Instagram.
But while there is scant evidence of proven benefits for the worried well, vitamin drips — which can cost anywhere between £75 and £850 — may present some very real and serious risks.
Just six weeks ago 63-year-old Rita Sauguniene collapsed and died at her home in Forest Gate, East London, two hours after getting a vitamin drip. It’s believed her husband paid £400 for a course of them as a gift for his wife.
A 54-year-old woman — believed to be the therapist — was arrested on suspicion of her manslaughter and bailed to return to court next month. Samples of a substance believed to have been given to Rita were also reportedly seized. It is understood the cocktail was produced in Lithuania.
Rita’s death has led to more questions being asked over a trend that has long been viewed by doctors and scientists as ‘an accident waiting to happen’.
Given the many risks involved in formulating and administering drips safely, many are wondering why an industry allowed to mainline unregulated cocktails of vitamins and minerals straight into customers’ veins exists at all.
Commercial vitamin drips fall between the cracks of different regulators, partly because they have been classed as foods rather than medicines.
In December, Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director, called the companies touting these treatments as hangover cures in the run-up to New Year’s Eve ‘reckless and exploitative’ for peddling ‘ineffective and misleading treatments’.
However, despite concerns from some of those overseeing the nation’s health, the vitamin drip industry has expanded so much that, while they were once confined to clinics, drips are being offered on the High Street as firms try to make this once-alternative medical treatment as de rigueur as having your nails done.
Several vitamin-drip companies are even offering home and office visits — as well as training for beauty therapists to sell their products.
But administering drips outside of strictly controlled clinical settings comes with a wide-ranging set of risks.
Consultant dietitian Sophie Medlin has previously worked in the NHS to administer drips for patients.
She points out that within the health service, nutrient infusions are only given in exceptional circumstances for seriously ill patients — suffering from issues such as intestinal or bowel failure — and then only after a barrage of tests.
These include blood tests which are used to formulate a drip containing the exact nutrients a patient needs. It could not be more different from the situation on the High Street, where customers are able to walk in, fill in a questionnaire, get their pulse taken and choose from a menu of off-the-peg formulations.
Vitamin drips typically contain a saline solution — a mixture of salts and sterilised water — with different cocktails of dissolved vitamins and minerals, depending on what the treatment claims to address, anything from anti-ageing to boosting energy or immunity.
They usually come in bags of around a litre, which take 20-40 minutes to administer via a line and a cannula in the customer’s forearm and then into the bloodstream.
This is despite the fact that if a consumer has a heart or kidney problem, the sudden infusion of liquid into their bodies means there is a risk of organ failure. Sophie says: ‘Your heart needs to be able to pump fluid effectively around your body.
So you’re basically putting an extra litre of liquid in your body very quickly. There’s a risk the heart and kidneys won’t be able to cope with the increased volume.’
There are also risks if the drips are not safely inserted — or if a patient has an allergic reaction to one of the ingredients.
Sophie, of City Dietitians, says: ‘Administering a drip is also not an easy thing to do. There’s a reason drips are only given in hospitals by medical staff with specialist training. For example, if you miss the vein and the liquid goes into the tissue this can be extremely painful and may cause chemical burns.
‘Afterwards, people can suffer allergic reactions from infusions and there needs to be a doctor or nurse there to respond if that happens. If you get a reaction after you’ve gone home, you could die.
‘If you have a vitamin deficiency and you can’t absorb nutrients any other way than through your veins, a nutrient infusion can be of help.
‘But having nutrients force-fed through into your bloodstream is not the natural or physiological way to do that. In the worst-case scenario, if you are very ill, it can be done — if there’s no other choice about mode of delivery.
‘If you’re the worried well, it is important to remember that your best outcome with getting a vitamin drip is that you just pass all the excess nutrients and water out in your urine. The worst-case scenario is overdose, allergic reaction or sepsis. It simply isn’t worth the risk for no discernible reward.’
Professor Alan Shenkin, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Chemistry at the University of Liverpool, is also concerned that vitamin drip services are popping up in shopping centres and in department stores, where they are not only being administered but formulations mixed too.
While the companies which offer such drips (in shopping centres) insist they are safe, telling the Mail they have ‘very high health and safety standards and the ingredients of the drips are never exposed to the external elements’, Professor Shenkin is concerned.
‘There are all sorts of possible reasons why someone could develop complications from something like this,’ he says. ‘For a start, if you put something into a vein it has to be sterile so you can get local infections or, much worse, blood poisoning.
‘So it’s not safe to give an intravenous drip anywhere outside a sterile hospital-style environment. Infusions shouldn’t be mixed outside a laboratory or pharmacy. Errors can also happen in compounding infusions with small volumes of additives even in clinical settings. And if they are being mixed in a shopping centre, there is dust and grime so you can get contamination with tiny particles as the ingredients are mixed.
The person mixing it would have to be absolutely sure there is no air anywhere in the line or in the bottle. If air gets into the vein and that circulates, the person receiving it can get a pulmonary embolism and die.’
Beauty training schools are now offering high-price courses to train ‘non-medic’ therapists in giving vitamin-drip therapy. One such course, offered by a company in Essex, charges £1,495 with IV drip kits available to buy afterwards, which they can sell for ‘anti- ageing’, ‘fat-burning’ and ‘increased libido’. While the beauticians who sign up are told they need ‘a phlebotomy [blood-taking] qualification’, it is not specified at what level or from whom.
In recent months, as health fears among the general public have hit an all-time high, the watchdogs have stepped up their efforts to clamp down on firms’ claims.
In April, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld complaints against three clinics — Reviv UK Ltd, Cosmetic Medical Advice UK and The Private Harley Street Clinic — for stating or implying that their vitamin drips could protect against or help fight Covid-19.
In May, working with the Government’s medicines watchdog, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), they issued an enforcement notice to anyone claiming the same.
Even so, in July, Reviv, which offers vitamin-drip services up and down the country, sent a press release to the Mail which claimed their Megaboost drip could help protect against the virus.
While the company repeatedly blamed an ‘error’, the MHRA told the Mail that continuing to send out such claims was a contravention of their regulations. Last year, another firm, Get A Drip, withdrew a ‘fertility drip’ on sale for £250 after the British Pregnancy Advisory Service says there was no evidence it could improve the chance of conception, slamming it for charging ‘an exploitative price and playing on the fears and anxieties of women who may be struggling to conceive’.
New figures given to the Mail by the MHRA show it has taken action against 21 companies for making medicinal claims for their IV nutritional therapy products over the past five years — when no such claims are allowed. It has also received 429 reports of ‘suspected adverse drug reaction associated with intravenous administration of vitamin and mineral products’.
Save Face, a Government-approved register for non-surgical cosmetic clinicians, says in the past 12 months it has had 59 complaints from consumers about vitamin-drip companies.
Director Ashton Collins says: ‘The most common causes for complaints is that they noticed no effect and felt they had been misled and ripped off.
‘Others felt unwell afterwards, felt their practitioner had no knowledge of the benefits or effects of the treatment or they got a rash or irritation at the injection site.
‘Most of the patients were under the impression that vitamin drips could not cause any adverse effect and were risk-free.
‘The vitamin drip industry is still pretty much unregulated because no one could have imagined it becoming a trend a few years ago.
‘People have cottoned on to the fact that there’s money to be made — and because drips are made from non-prescription medicines, pretty much anyone can get their hands on them.’
For Professor Shenkin, the question remains why such a treatment is available to consumers in the first place. He says: ‘I am surprised more casualties haven’t come to light. Unquestionably, they will do if vitamin drips are being extended even further into franchises.’
Looking back, Lynette feels lucky. She says: ‘Afterwards, I rang the clinic and they told me that only one in 100 clients got a bad reaction and they could offer me 20 per cent off my next treatment.
‘Needless to say, I didn’t take them up on it. I had assumed having a vitamin drip was safe because I didn’t ask enough questions.
‘The truth is that there is no regulation around it. So goodness knows who could be pumping goodness knows what straight into your bloodstream.
‘Knowing what I know now, I am relieved that it wasn’t much worse.’