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Dear Mayo Clinic: I keep hearing about all the health benefits of probiotics. Are there any negative side effects? Do I need to talk to my doctor before I take them?

A: Some research has shown that taking probiotics may have health benefits. They appear to be especially useful in promoting digestive health. In healthy adults, side effects from probiotics are rare. Before you start taking them, however, it is a good idea to discuss it with your doctor.

Probiotics contain strains of living bacteria that are similar to the healthy bacteria normally found in your digestive system. The purpose of taking probiotics is to increase the levels of those healthy bacteria.

You can get probiotics from your diet. For example, yogurt, some types of soft cheese such as Gouda, miso soup, sourdough bread and acidophilus milk all contain probiotics. Probiotics also are available in pill form as an over-the-counter dietary supplement.

Although more research is needed, there is evidence that probiotics may be useful in treating some disorders of the digestive tract. In particular, probiotics appear to be helpful in treating diarrhea, especially following treatment with certain antibiotics; treating irritable bowel syndrome; and speeding treatment of some intestinal infections. They also may be effective in preventing and treating the skin condition eczema in children. Some research suggests probiotics can help reduce the recurrence of bladder cancer, as well.

One research study of children in day-care settings found that those who regularly took a probiotic supplement developed fewer colds and were less likely to get the flu than those who did not. Another study of probiotics followed a group of people who worked night shifts. Its findings were similar to those of the day-care study: People who took probiotics got sick less often than those who did not.

It is important to note, though, that not all probiotics are the same. The specific type of probiotic used to treat irritable bowel syndrome, for example, may not be the one that can help fight eczema. When you go to buy a probiotic supplement, you will likely find a wide variety of options available. It’s often hard to know which one is right for you.

That’s why talking with your doctor before you start taking a probiotic can be helpful.

Side effects from probiotics are uncommon. Before you start taking a probiotics supplement, however, you should review with your doctor any other medications or supplements you’re taking and discuss any additional health concerns you may have. In some people who have immune system problems or intestinal damage, taking probiotics may not be recommended.

Dr. Brent Bauer is an internist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.