Potassium iodide hard to find, should you care?

Pharmacies are having a tough time stocking the over the counter pills because much of the U.S. supply has been shipped to Japan.

Since the nuclear crisis in Japan, people in the U.S. have been buying up potassium iodide, which protects against thyroid cancer in people exposed to radiation.

There's been a spike in interest about the drug, even on the Grand Strand.

Potassium iodide is, quite simply, a combination of potassium and iodine, two things the body needs naturally. But before you head to your pharmacy or health food store to pick some up, there are things you should know.

The owner of Ocean Lakes Pharmacy in Surfside Beach says he's had a few calls this week about potassium iodide. One of them came from a man who last inquired about the drug when there was all the talk about weapons of mass destruction during Operation Desert Storm.

"I just think he was scared, just wanted some kind of back-up, precautionary stuff," said pharmacist Roddy Williams.

Williams doesn't have any potassium iodide on the shelf right now, though that's not unusual. He says most of the time, there's not enough demand for the drug to keep it in stock.

And even if he wanted some now, he doesn't think he could get it. "I was told that all of the supplies went to Japan and they weren't sure when they'd have some more in but to keep checking every week."

Potassium iodide is cheap and sold over the counter, no prescription needed.

When there's too much radioactivity in the air or food, taking potassium iodide will help prevent thyroid cancer, said Dr. John Charles with Grand Strand Regional Medical Center in Myrtle Beach. "What it does is, it fills up the pool in your thyroid of iodine and then there's no room for the radioactive stuff."

But taking it when you don't need it can give you too much potassium, causing heart rhythm and nervous system problems. And too much iodine, can cause an overactive or underactive thyroid.

Since there's such a tiny chance of any radioactivity from Japan ever reaching us, Dr. Charles says, don't worry about potassium iodide now. "It's very, very low on my list of priorities of things I need to do to take care of myself."

Keep in mind, radiation can come from many sources, like an X-Ray at your doctor's office or even the smoke detectors in your home. Radiation from a nuclear plant in Japan is a long way away.

Health agencies in California and western Canada are warning that there's no reason for people an ocean away to stock up on potassium iodide.