It is frequently stated in the scientific literature, official reports and the press that 80% of Asian and African populations use traditional medicine (TM) to meet their healthcare needs; however, this statistic was first reported in 1983. This study aimed to update knowledge of the prevalence of TM use and the characteristics of those who access it, to inform health policy-makers as countries seek to fulfil the WHO TM strategy 2014–23 and harness TM for population health. Prevalence of reported use of TM was studied in 35 334 participants of the WHO-SAGE, surveyed 2007–10. TM users were compared with users of modern healthcare in univariate and multivariate analyses. Characteristics examined included age, sex, geography (urban/rural), income quintile, education, self-reported health and presence of specific chronic conditions. This study found TM use was highest in India, 11.7% of people reported that their most frequent source of care during the previous 3 years was TM; 19.0% reported TM use in the previous 12 months. In contrast <3% reported TM as their most frequent source of care in China, Ghana, Mexico, Russia and South Africa; and <2% reported using TM in the previous year in Ghana, Mexico, Russia and South Africa. In univariate analyses, poorer, less educated and rural participants were more likely to be TM-users. In the China multivariate analysis, rurality, poor self-reported health and presence of arthritis were associated with TM use; whereas diagnosed diabetes, hypertension and cataracts were less prevalent in TM users. In Ghana and India, lower income, depression and hypertension were associated with TM use. In conclusion, TM use is less frequent than commonly reported. It may be unnecessary, and perhaps futile, to seek to employ TM for population health needs when populations are increasingly using modern medicine.