In mid-March, Hoang Vi Fessenden, a stylish stay-at-home mom and lifestyle blogger living in Charleston, South Carolina, posted a smiling photo of herself on Instagram, her arm hooked up to an IV. Fessenden shared with her then-more than 14,000 followers that she was worried about the rise of COVID-19 and had just received IV infusion therapy from Vida-Flo Charleston, a wellness IV spa, to boost her immunity and energy. “Are you prepared for this?” she asked.
Fessenden, 27, first went to an IV clinic years ago, she tells ELLE.com in an email, and she says she now goes once every two months. She has tried a number of infusions with hydrating fluids, such as saline and electrolytes, as well as B vitamins and Vitamin C. She receives free treatments from Vida-Flo Charleston in exchange for posting about them, but an introductory package at the clinic starts at $69. There are also add-ons, including a “Super Boost Vitamin C” for $500 (or $250 with a half-off members discount). “I feel like my overall well being and health is boosted,” Fessenden says. “Not to say that I can't get COVID because I had [an IV] treatment, but I think it lessens the chances of me falling ill for a long period of time and helps my body to be able to recover if I were to get it.”
Nycole Hutchens, a glowing 33-year-old wellness blogger from Houston, also posted a photo of herself on Instagram in late April with an IV, wearing a mask. In her caption, she noted she was glad she could “fight off viruses and colds with IV drip therapy.” She received a hydration drip—a mix of fluids and electrolytes—at the clinic that day, along with a vitamin C booster shot. Hutchens says she believes “taking care of yourself on the inside along with a healthy diet is beneficial” during the pandemic. She typically pays $100 to $250 for a treatment a couple times a year—she mostly gets hydration drips—and would go more often, she says, if they were less expensive. (The hydration drip is priced at $90 for members and $150 for walk-ins.)
At present, there is no vaccine for COVID-19 and no products have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat or prevent the virus. But Fessenden believes a healthy lifestyle can help and sees IV drips as a supplement to other measures she takes to avoid COVID-19, like washing her hands and wearing a mask.
Unlike those measures, however, many wellness treatments come with big promises and not enough science. “We found almost immediately that there was a segment of the wellness industry that was exploiting this pandemic—COVID-19—for their own monetary gain,” says Bonnie Patten, executive director of the nonprofit Truth in Advertising (TINA.org). “IV therapies jumped out” as one of those industries, she adds.
IV centers have attracted attention in recent years for offering hangover cures, but treatments span the entire wellness gamut, with infusions intended for everything from chronic illnesses to glowing skin. You can pay less than a hundred dollars for one visit if you get a deal, but treatments also often run higher. Celebrities have espoused IV drips in the past, with Chrissy Teigen and Cara Delevingne appearing on social media with hooked-up arms.
What originally evoked partied-out Coachella girls might be more likely now to suggest clean-living. Or a pandemic: On March 13, Marla Maples, a wellness advocate and a former wife of President Donald Trump, shared a video of herself on Instagram saying that vitamin C drips are even more important during COVID-19.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a government agency that seeks to protect consumers, is concerned that some businesses are marketing therapies without adequate scientific evidence. Over the last few months, the agency has sent a number of warning letters to businesses that offer IV therapy from San Francisco to Miami for unlawfully advertising that their products treat or prevent COVID-19. (A warning letter means a company has a chance to stop making the claims and avoid further action.)
Many of those centers were touting the benefits of vitamin C, particularly in high doses, according to the FTC letters. “Just a few of our beautiful Superwomen IV guests,” one clinic captioned an Instagram post in March, according to a letter. “They received our Super-C vitamin cocktail blend and reinforced their immune defense shields…COVID-19 is no match for these ‘Superwomen’!”
Not only can IV vitamin therapies come with a “significant financial expense,” but “we're also concerned that people may get a false sense of security and not take the appropriate preventative measures,” says Rich Cleland, assistant director of the Division of Advertising Practices at the FTC.
Weighing in on whether clinics should be making these kinds of claims about COVID-19, Fessenden, the lifestyle blogger, says they shouldn't, “because I think anyone can catch it.”
One of the businesses that received a FTC letter was Liquivida Lounge, a medical spa founded in 2014 by a former firefighter, which has locations across Florida and other states. The FTC warned the company in April about its marketing of vitamin C, including that IV therapy could “help in the battle against COVID-19.” Liquivida Lounge has since revised its messaging to emphasize that Vitamin C helps “the body fight against infections (in general)” and to “reassure the public that no one has a cure for Coronavirus,” says Emmanuel Trenche, a spokesman for the company.
Trenche views vitamin infusions as “a proactive step” to keep one’s immune system strong during the pandemic, along with measures such as eating a healthy diet. Their stores have seen more interest in Vitamin IV therapy recently, he notes, as have doctors who buy their infusion kits.
Getting enough vitamin C, which naturally occurs in foods such as fruit, to bolster your immune defenses is not a new idea—and it has some science behind it. And a number of studies on how certain vitamins, including vitamin C, might help with COVID-19 are in progress. But as USA Today notes, clinical trials with vitamin C “could take years before reaching conclusions.” And right now, there's no data to support that taking high doses of any vitamin treats or prevents COVID-19, says Dr. Caroline Apovian, the director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston Medical Center.
With water soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C, whatever your body doesn't need is expelled through urine, she says. IVs are also not without risk, such as infection, and there's no reason for people who are generally healthy to be taking that risk at all, she tells ELLE.com, especially while paying hundreds of dollars. (Dr. Christopher Davis, the Chief Medical Officer of Liquivida Lounge, acknowledges a risk of bleeding and infection, but notes it is “inordinately small.”)
IV clinics are “selling snake oil to people,” Apovian says, arguing that there is no comparison to preventative measures that have scientific backing. "If you don't wash your hands, and you don't practice social distancing, and you don't wear a mask—and you think this is going to save you? You're wrong.”
Supporters say doing everything you can to stay healthy now is common sense. “We strongly believe in our products—I strongly believe in the role of vitamin C and the immune system,” Davis says. But “we have to be careful not to instill this false sense of hope.”
With people anxious about staying safe, “anything to help your body absorb the best vitamins and nutrients [is] going to ease your worries,” says Fessenden. Like many though, she is concerned people are still not taking COVID-19 seriously. Masks play “a huge role,” she says, along with “actually social distancing.”
Want to be a “superwoman?” Put on a mask.
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