Millions of Americans turn to homeopathic treatment as an alternative to typical Western medicine. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is however planning two days of hearings to determine whether the products should be regulated in the same ways as traditional drugs.

Homeopathic medicine is largely based on a pair of principles that most accepted scientific studies have determined to be ineffective. The first is the idea that "like cures like" — so a substance that causes a symptom will cure diseases marked by the same condition. The second is that diluting a substance makes it more powerful, which is contrary to most accepted ideas in chemistry and physics. Some diluted substances are so weak; there is little chance that even a single molecule of the active ingredient exists in a dose of the drug.

"Each substance in nature has a certain set of characteristics," said Anthony Aurigemma, a Bethesda, Maryland-based physician who frequently utilizes homeopathic drugs for his patients. "And when a patient comes who matches the physical, mental and emotional symptoms that a remedy produces — that medicine may heal the person's problem." 

Some patients who have seen little or no relief from Western medical treatment seek out homeopathic medicine in hopes of curing themselves.

According to a 2007 survey, approximately 3.9 million adults and 910,000 children used homeopathic medicine. The products cost a total of $2.9 billion in that year alone — and the homeopathic market is quickly growing.

"Homeopathic remedies are often formulated as sugar pellets to be placed under the tongue; they may also be in other forms, such as ointments, gels, drops, creams, and tablets. Treatments are 'individualized' or tailored to each person — it is not uncommon for different people with the same condition to receive different treatments," according to National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). 

Some health professionals are concerned that people taking homeopathic remedies instead of prescription drugs could aggravate their conditions. Asthma sufferers are one of the groups at greatest risk if they opt out of their traditional treatment plans.

Since 1988, the FDA has practiced a policy of leaving homeopathic medicines largely unregulated — but that could soon change after the new hearings.

Many homeopathic treatments are inexpensive, with some of the drugs costing less than $10. However, visits to wellness centers and other costs can start to add up, even though many of the treatments are covered by insurance.

Some patients who get relief from homeopathic treatment are concerned that if the FDA regulates the drugs, they may be prevented from receiving care that works for them.

Public comment is welcomed during the two days of the FDA hearings, taking place April 20-21.

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