Probiotics are a nutritional supplement that contain non-harmful, live microorganisms, similar to the ones found in the digestive system, that act to provide health benefits to the person taking them. A number of different probiotic organisms are found in the supplements, most of which contain bacterial species from Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Probiotics are thought to provide some benefit to the digestive and immune system. They are often used following a course of antibiotic therapy. However, more studies are needed to determine their effectiveness. Some problems are also associated with their use.
It's possible for probiotics to cause an allergic reaction for some people who take it. The symptoms of an allergic reaction include hives, itching, wheezing, difficulty breathing and swelling of the face and throat. The University of Maryland Medical Center reports one case of a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis affects the entire body and is a life-threatening situation that requires immediate medical intervention. The signs of anaphylaxis are mental confusion, slurred speech, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, irregular heartbeat and possibly loss of consciousness and death.
Excessive Drainage Syndrome
Excessive drainage syndrome can occur with extended probiotic treatment. It is thought to occur from different colonies of bacteria competing when probiotics are first introduced to the digestive tract. The symptoms include diarrhea, gas, bloating, headache, constipation and possibly dehydration. The symptoms may persist for a number of days. While taking probiotics, it may help reduce the chances of developing excessive drainage syndrome by introducing the supplement in slowly increasing dosages, taking a stool softener, increasing the amount of fiber in the diet and drinking plenty of water.
Risk of Infection
Probiotics must be used with care by people who have conditions causing a weakened or suppressed immune system, such as HIV/AIDS, chemotherapy and immuno-suppressive drug therapy following an organ transplant. The bacteria in probiotics may actually cause an overlying infection to occur requiring treatment with antibiotics. Those who have artificial valves in their heart should only take probiotics under supervision of physician due to the risk of developing a rare heart infection.
Probiotics are classified as dietary supplements by the FDA and as such are not regulated for efficacy, dosage and safety. When purchasing a probiotic supplement, choose one from a reputable manufacturer, health food store or nutrition store. There is a great variability in the contents of the different brands, including the amount and type of organisms used, as no standards have been established. Keeping live microorganisms intact from shelf to their transit through the intestines can also be a problem: AltMD reports that a study of 25 dairy products and 13 powdered supplements found only 33 percent contained live organisms and only 13 percent contained all the organisms listed on the label.