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Does Zicam really work to reduce the duration of a cold? Dr. Emily Altman

Summer is officially over in four short days.  The cold and flu season is about to start.  We head to the drug store in the hopes of finding something that will ease the symptoms and shorten the duration of the common cold.  The number of cold remedies, homeopathic and allopathic, available on drugstore shelves is pretty large.  Care must be taken when choosing the right medicine to make you feel better.

In the recent years, it seems that the bright orange packaging of Zicam, an over the counter homeopathic nasal gel that claims to reduce the duration and severity of the common cold, has been seen everywhere.  The question is does Zicam do what its makers claim?  From personal experience, I have not found Zicam to work. There are studies that show that it shortens the duration of a cold, however the side effects of this seemingly harmless, natural medication include a potentially permanent loss of sense of smell (anosmia).



An article from the Department of Infectious Diseases for the Cleveland Clinic, entitled “Effect of zincum gluconicum nasal gel on the duration and symptom severity of the common cold in otherwise healthy adults.” published in QJM. 2003  Jan;96(1):35-43 concluded that “Zincum gluconicum nasal gel shortens duration and reduces symptom severity of the common cold in healthy adults, when started within 24-48 h of the onset of illness.”

Another article “Zinc nasal gel for the treatment of common cold symptoms: a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.” from the Center of Integrative Medicine, Tarzana, CA, published in Ear Nose Throat J. 2000 Oct;79(10):778-80, 782 concluded, “These results provide evidence that zinc nasal gel is effective in shortening the duration of common cold symptoms off when taken within 24 hours of their onset.”

Zicam’s active ingredient is zincum gluconicum (zinc gluconate). Here is a short summary of the functions of zinc in the body from the Office of Dietary Supplements of the National Institutes of Health (http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets…

“Zinc is involved in numerous aspects of cellular metabolism. It is required for the catalytic activity of approximately 100 enzymes and it plays a role in immune function, protein synthesis, wound healing, DNA synthesis, and cell division. Zinc also supports normal growth and development during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence and is required for proper sense of taste and smell. A daily intake of zinc is required to maintain a steady state because the body has no specialized zinc storage system.”

Most of the time, we get sufficient zinc in our diets without the need to supplement. Severe zinc deficiency can cause a decrease in the immune function, but whether adding more zinc than the organism requires helps boost the immune system is not clear. On the other hand, too much zinc can also inhibit the immune system (Harvard Health Publications http://www.health.harvard.edu/fl…).

Here is what Consumer Reports says about Zicam (http://www.consumerreports.org/h…)

“Most cold medicines only treat cold symptoms,” but Zicam Cold Remedy “shortens the duration and severity of the cold,” says the Web site for this zinc-based nasal gel. Does Zicam, which costs $11 to $12 for about a week’s supply, really work–and is it safe?

Test-tube studies have shown that high levels of zinc might curb the growth of cold viruses and boost production of infection-fighting substances. But only about half the clinical trials we looked at for nasal zinc have found that it shortens or eases a cold.

More important, studies with animals and case reports suggest that nasal zinc may cause loss of smell, possibly permanent. Last year we unearthed more than 200 complaints to the Food and Drug Administration about an impaired sense of smell, taste, or both after using zinc nasal products. And about 340 consumers have sued Matrixx Initiatives, the maker of Zicam, claiming loss of smell. Last January the company agreed to settle almost all outstanding lawsuits without admitting fault. Matrixx’s promotion of Zicam is being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates product advertising.

Oral zinc is probably safe if you take less than 40 milligrams a day. But the evidence on its efficacy is also mixed.

Consumer Reports’ take. The possible risk posed by nasal zinc outweighs any benefit. it’s not clear whether oral zinc is worth taking for colds.”

In 2009, the Food and Drug Administration issued a news release advising consumers not to use Zicam due to the potentially permanent loss of the sense of smell. http://www.fda.gov/Newsevents/Ne…

So, in conclusion zinc nasal gel may help in shortening the duration of a cold, but should not be used due to the potential loss of the sense of smell.

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