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The FDA has raised alarms about wellness IV treatments at unregulated med spas

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Maybe you had a little too much fun on New Year's Eve. Or maybe you've got health goals for this new year. Either way, so-called med spas offer products they say can help, especially IV drips for hydration boosted with vitamins, even injections they claim will help burn fat. Well, evidence that IV therapy is helpful for healthy people is anecdotal at best, and there are no federal regulations for med spas. So as the industry has grown, so too have warnings about the risks. Health reporter Erika Edwards has been investigating this for NBC News. She's with me now. Hi there.

ERIKA EDWARDS: Hi.

KELLY: I want to understand what kind of clinics we're talking about here. You report this is a $15 billion industry, so it sounds like they're everywhere, very easy to find.

EDWARDS: Yeah, these med spas, or sometimes they're called IV hydration clinics, just as you said, you know, they offer vitamin shots to boost your energy, IVs to replenish fluids, improve the appearance of skin. Sometimes there are those brick-and-mortar med spas you can visit, but sometimes they advertise their services on social media. And some are actually mobile med spas. That is, they come to you. They go to the client's home or business.

KELLY: And I - the whole name is throwing me, I guess, because you hear med spa and you think - medical, this is legit. Like, this person giving me an IV must have the right authority and training. Is that part of the appeal for people?

EDWARDS: Yeah, I think so. And to be fair, I mean, many med spas are operating safely with properly trained, licensed workers and are following basic sanitation and safety guidelines. But the industry has grown so fast that oversight is really lacking. There are no federal standards for med spas. They're regulated by the state. States have different rules, some much more lax than others. And the American Med Spa Association even says that state authorities really just don't have the time or the resources to make sure these spas are following their own laws.

KELLY: I want you to tell us the story of one woman you talked to. She went to a med spa in Los Angeles. What happened?

EDWARDS: Yeah, Bea Amma - she's 26 years old. Back in 2021, she was an aspiring health and fitness influencer on social media. The combination of work and a big move cross-country had her feeling fatigued. So she went to a med spa in hopes of getting an energy boost. She thought that shots of vitamin B12 would help, and she said that the worker at the spa sold her on a shot that also included vitamin C and another ingredient called deoxycholic acid, which is meant to dissolve fat cells. Amma said go for it. And she said she was injected more than 100 times on her arms, her stomach area, on her backside.

KELLY: Sorry - more than 100 times?

EDWARDS: More than 100 times.

KELLY: OK.

EDWARDS: But within 24 hours, Amma said that all of those injection spots erupted, became inflamed, and she said that it felt like her entire body was on fire. She was dizzy. She spiked a fever. Doctors later found that she had an aggressive, drug-resistant bacterial infection. Now, the bacteria they found is actually pretty common. It's found in water and soil, and it can be associated with contaminated medical devices if equipment is not sterilized properly. Amma's case was so bad, she is still scarred, and she remains on heavy-duty antibiotics nearly three years later.

KELLY: I imagine you also talked to people who had good experiences here.

EDWARDS: You know, it's interesting. I've talked with people with long COVID, for example, who say - and again, this is all anecdotal, but they say that they go in, you know, monthly, sometimes twice a month, for an energy boost. They say that these IVs and hydration really kind of help boost their mood and their energy level for at least a few weeks.

KELLY: The FDA has issued warnings about med spas. What are their concerns?

EDWARDS: Yeah, you're right. The agency issued two consumer alerts in the past few years. One said that some med spas were mixing products without proper sterilization, and another warned that spas were employing people who were unlicensed, meaning they had not been trained properly to administer a shot or an IV, and using unapproved fat dissolving ingredients like the one Bea Amma was given.

KELLY: OK, so if someone wants to go - is making a decision to go to a med spa, what type thing should they look for? What type questions should they ask to minimize risk?

EDWARDS: Yeah, there are a few questions to ask. No. 1, who owns and operates the med spa? A doctor should be playing some kind of role here. The other one is - who is administering my treatment, and what credentials does that person have? I mean, it might be uncomfortable, but don't be afraid to ask to see a license or a diploma. And the other question is, you know, is there a licensed medical practitioner on site in case I have complications? The spas should also do a basic health exam before any procedure to make sure that there are no underlying conditions or drug interactions that might increase the risk for complications.

KELLY: Erika Edwards, health reporter for NBC News, thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

EDWARDS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.