Debate over Zicam – does risk outweigh the benefits?

Zicam’s main ingredient for treating the cold symptoms is zinc. Laboratory test-tube experiments showed that high levels of zinc may curb the growth of cold viruses and boost production of infection-fighting substances.

However, one purported side effect to the use of zinc nasal sprays is loss of the sense of smell. Last year Zicam makers Matrixx Initiatives settled 340 lawsuits for $12 million brought by consumers who claimed the product damaged their sense of smell. Matrixx said the agreement was not an admission of liability but simply an effort to end the litigations. Matrixx also issued a press release in 2004 testifying to the effectiveness and safety of their flagship product.

Zicam contains zinc, and studies on animals and case reports showed that nasal zinc may possibly cause the permanent loss of smell. The most often referred study in 1938 used a concentrated zinc sulfate, and Zicam’s formula contains zinc gluconate.

There is no question that Zicam relieves cold symptoms faster. The main concern is then in its side effects.

I found this Consumer Reports article (January 2007) leading on towards the negative:

Zicam: Safe cold cure?

“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.

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

Scopes also wrote their take on Zicam here.

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    • Brenda S. Briscoe

      I have found this product to work amazingly. I am very happy with the results when taking Zicam. I also want to say that I have a very keen sense of smell and it has not changed since I’ve started taking Zicam. (2yrs) I smell as good as ever. I don’t know why people are so sue happy. My only complaint would be the price of the product. If people were not so sue happy a lot of things might be more resonable. Their suits make the cost of things go up for everyone else. Thankyou anyways for a great product!

    • suzanne gourd

      i was advised by a care provider to use zicam for my alergies, in jan of 07 since thant time i have not been able to taste or smell anything, i do although have a metallic taste that is always present in my mouth, this drives me crazy. is there anything to help me please advise.
      Thank you, i can be contacted at 918-504-0533.

    • Curt Nighswander

      No appreciable difference….drink lots of water is the best…and its cheaper

    • Jan Folsom

      Has anyone else out there experienced dizziness, some nausea and general “icky” feeling after applying Zicam gel to their nasal area? I’m not seeing it in side effects but have tried it twice now with the same results.
      Jan Folsom

    • Takile

      I’ve heard that Zinc actually prevents absorption of antibiotics, which can be self-defeating.

    • Bobbie

      Zicam works for me. It definitely shortens a cold – dramatically. And if I don’t start taking it until the cold is well under way it definitely minimizes the symptoms and shortens it anyway.

    • ZicamPetition

      Please visit our petition to hear more about Zicam, and hear from some of its newest victims. Sign and help us to plead with the FDA and Matrixx to warn other potential victims, or remove the product from the shelves entirely.
      Thank You.

    • laura

      I use Zicam all the time whenever I have the cold and it works perfectly fine, and I have never had any loss of taste or smell. The ingredients in Zicam are naturally occurring in our bodies, the only way it can be harmful is if taken in exaggerated amounts, which intelligent people would obviously not do. People should start reading the labels before taking any time of medication.

    • Andrew Glover

      I’ve been using ZiCam for colds ever since I’ve came across it. Before a cold would last me around a week. When using the Zicam nasal swabs, it cuts my colds down to 2-3 days. I have no loss of smell and I would bet that most of the lawsuits came from people who had no side-effects whatsoever, but had just came across information from research on the active ingredient. I recommend Zicam.

    • http://zicam Jane

      I LOVE Zicam…..It really works for me – shortens my cold so that I only feel bad 2 days. I do not have any loss of smell or taste. Jane

    • Naguib Sabbagh

      I have Chronic Lymphocitic Leukemia.. and when I get a cold it drags and drags. Is it safe for me to take Zicam Oral ?? Thank you

    • Elizabeth Hart

      I used Zicam liquid nasal gel – extreme congestion relief for eight times. It did relieve my nasal symptons and I was estatic. BUT on the fourth day my tongue starting burning. Five days later it is still burning, hurting, and making me go crazy. Thru research I discovered the FDA is investigating this drug and the manufactor has already settled $12 million to a number of users. This drug could possibily cause the loss of the sense of smell and/or taste. BEWARE!!!!!

    • Kelly

      I’ve only used Zicam twice now and both times it has helped tremendously without side effects, thanks Zicam!

      Specifically, the last time I took Zicam (today) I had had a sore throat for two days and feeling extremely run down. Started feeling better almost immediately after taking it and feeling better progressively throughout the day (on third dose of mint spray since 9AM). My throat still feels odd but almost completely better and energy levels are up! :-)

    • Teacher

      Zicam is a school teacher’s friend in the winter months.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if drug companies who sell antibiotics are behind this one.

      While a cold and sinus infection are not the same, a cold gone unchecked can turn into a sinus infection often.

      I think it is a scam on the part of the drug companies.

    • Linda

      Guess I am one of the lucky or maybe now unlucky ones.

      I used he nasal swab s I have abnormal sinuses and colds can become serious business for me. I only had to use about 3 swabs per cold. I usually did it on the uptick of the cold

      I did try the nasal spray once and it made me quite ill. I don’t remember the symptoms, but one use was enough for me to throw out and to hunt down the swabs again.

      Does this mean I will end up in bed for weeks again when I get a cold?

    • Doug

      I have used Zicam since 2003. It does not always work, but when it does, it works great. I would attribute the mixed bag to a difference in pathogens, not Zicam. I can still taste and smell as well as ever. I would suggest that if you suspect trouble or are too afraid to risk it, don’t use Zicam. This is one area where the government should stay out. If I am willing to give up smell it should be up to me to make this decision. I hate colds so much that I would gladly give up smell if required. For me, so far, it has not been.
      Perhaps the problem is with dosing level. Being cheap, I don’t ever use the pump. I take a double ended cotton swab and moisten each end with Zicam, then one does the right nostril and the other the left. I can get over 100 dosings out of a single 1/2 ounce bottle. Still works, goes farther.

    • Melinda

      I have been using Zicam nasal swabs for a while now…I use it as soon as I start feeling like a cold is coming on and it has worked great. I have only used one or two swabs per incident. Maybe people are using too much of it? This past winter and spring I never got down with a cold or sinus infection. I have not experienced any loss of smell or taste. I certainly hope they do not take this product off the market. For me, it has been wonderful.

    • Norcal Yankee

      My husband and myself have used Zicam without any ill effects.

    • Glen

      This is not a homeopathic product. Homeopathic products do not contain significant amounts of their supposedly “active ingredients”.
      Since it is not homeopathic, it perhaps should be regulated as a drug.

      Doug said, “This is one area where the government should stay out. If I am willing to give up smell it should be up to me to make this decision.”
      Well, maybe this would be reasonable if the people using this product knew that they had a significant chance of losing their smell, but the manufacturer denied that there was a problem. Losing one’s sense of smell is a big deal–much bigger than having a cold.

    • Father of Darkness

      I’ve read several of the news stories that were released yesterday. Probably what happened is that the people who lost their smell ended up getting a massive dose way up the nose. What I read on snopes tends to bear this out.

    • Cholesterol Crusader

      #1. The percentage of people reporting problems is .0000265 out of the 35 million retail units sold since 1999. It’s only .0000037 percent if you consider only the 130 cases reported to FDA. I wonder if any other FDA approved drug has this low a level of side effects. That being said…

      #2. There should be a warning on the label about possible loss of smell. That is a responsible thing to do. People need to be informed about possible side effects.

      #3. There is no telling how this product was used — how often, how far up the nose, etc.

      #4. Even in an approved medication, there are people who are going to be sensitive or allergic to an ingredient. My dad cannot have IVP dyes for kidney tests — he discovered his allergy to iodine in the middle of a test which had to be curtailed. I cannot eat shellfish. Millions of people cannot eat peanuts, chocolate, gluten, etc. – does that mean there should be no availability of said substance or food for the rest of the population?

      #5. I feel for those who had smell loss. I had been using Claritin/loratadine for years for allergy relief. But this year, after about 3 weeks of use, I had palpitations and feelings of fainting. This triggered several visits to a cardiologist, medical tests, a month-long portable heartbeat monitor, etc. But what I noticed was this: when I stopped taking loratadine for an unrelated reason, my symptoms stopped. I checked it out online (no mention of heart related side effects on the bottle) and sure enough, there in the rare-but-serious category, were the very side effects I was experiencing. And there was an report from an Australian medical journal of a women who suffered “torsades de pointes” – a sometimes fatal arrhythmia that caused the antihistamine Seldane to be pulled off the market in the 80s. Both loratadine and Seldane were FDA approved, folks — so there’s no guarantee that FDA approved drugs are any safer than those that are not.

      #6 This is a slippery slope that can extend to freedoms for people to buy supplements and vitamins so they can enjoy quality self health care. The way things are now with HMOs and insurance, the medical profession doesn’t have the time to really understand its patients and so things are done according to formula (don’t even get me started on how LDL cholesterol is calculated!). People who want some input into their health may lose that right if the FDA starts wielding power on alternative medications.

      • Concerned Consumer

        Right on point Crusader… My son has a seizure disorder. He has been taking a medication for years that is documented to cause a deadly but rare side effect. The label warns users that this potentially fatal disorder can afflict approximately one in every million users of this medication. Consumers are free to decide if they want the risk. In spite of the warning, this anti-convulsant has been sold for years and used by millions safely.

        If there is true equability and even-handedness over protecting public health and safety, then the FDA should have taken this anti-convulsant off the market years ago. Obviously, it’s not the case.

        I’m not much a conspiracy theorist but it makes me wonder if there are other interests at work here.

    • Laura McPherson

      I started using ZiCam nasal Gel because I didn’t like the ZiCam tabs that melt in your mouth. I’ve been using it for a around 18 months and have had NO change in my sense of smell.The best part is that I haven’t taken any allergy medicines- and I feel wonderful!!! I do not SNIFF the ZiCam, it simply sits on the inside of my nose for 5-10 seconds, then I clear my nose. It never goes into my sinuses. I am going to continue to use this product because it works for me.

    • Anne

      Don’t forget that losing your sense of smell also means losing your sense of taste. Is the benefit worth the risk? My sister swears by the oral spray, but the ears, nose and mouth are connected, so I’m not willing to take the risk.

    • Marian

      I had taken Zicam for years without any problem and took it even after the recall figuring it was some sort of hysteria and the company after all said that it really was really safe. . Needless to say it was one time too many. This time when I used the gel my nostrils starting burning and I immediately washed it out. although I did not seem to initially suffer from any loss of sense of smell since it was more subtle I realized that I could no longer smell food the way I could before. I would have to hold a roasted chicked right up to my nose to be able to smell anything and I almost burned the house down becuase I could not smell pots of food burning on the stove……it was only when I finally saw the smoke that I realized what was happening. I have not sued so I can assure you this is for real. This stuff can be dangerous as can some of their other products. After taking the oral spray my tongue is still numb and my tastes are dulled after almost 3 days. I figured this one was definately safe but am hoping the affects wear off.

    • Zicam Zeke

      I’m surprised others haven’t noticed what is going on here. Zicam nasal gel was so effective that it made other cold remedies like Nyquil and Sudafed obsolete. Since pharamaceutical companies were losing money, they manufactured the lawsuits for the alleged “loss of smell” (and how is this proven in a court of law anyway that the plaintiffs did indeed lose their sense of smell and how do they know Zicam caused it and not something else).

      Zicam nasal gel was awesome. I’d use it whenever I got that pesky sore throat, the usual beginning of a cold. I’d use it as directed and more times than not, I wouldn’t even get the actual cold but maybe a sniffle here or there. I began using it in 1999 when it came out and until 2010 I have not had a full blown cold. Now that the gel is off the market, the only other comparable product they sell are the lozenges. The lozenges do not work. It’s a waste of money. Only the nasal gel worked. Today I’m suffering from the first cold I’ve had in 11 years and it sucks miserably.

      As for weighing the benefits and risk, I’d gladly give up my sense of smell to know that I would never be burdened again by a cold. But this isn’t the case and Zicam should have forked over the dough to hire better lawyers, but then again, as they say, you cannot fight city hall or the FDA (which is packed with pharamcuetical company representatives. It’s like putting the wolf in charge of the henhouse). The FDA wants people taking those horrible cold remedies that mask symptoms and make you feel worse than you actually do.

    • Retta

      I was going to go out and buy some of this tomorrow, but since I reading the opinions, I think I’ll just do it the old fashioned way, soup, rest and fluids. Thanks yall!!!!!

    • Dianne Schreiber

      Just wanted to say that I have asthma – and get a cold which turns to bronchitis 5 or 6 times a year. Would I trade that for loss of the sense of smell? You BET I would in a hearbeat! But alas, our government has decided I am better off with bronchitis than Zicam nasal gel or sticks. Thanks a lot, FDA!!

      • penny

        Does this mean its not for sale where you live? I bought Zicam for my husband yesterday and found out about the whole FDA thing today!! But my husband has had no ill effects from it so he is going to continue to use it.

    • mark

      I have never used the spray, gel or swabs. I have used the lozenges and the tablets. I catch every cold and flu that goes around. I have asthma and allergies. I tried everything that I could get my hands on. Nothing worked nearly as well as Zicam. I still catch every cold, flu and bug that goes around but Zicam has never failed to stop the symptoms. I tried Zinc for years to no effect. i do not know what Zicam does different but it always works. Even if the cold is a few days old I take it for one day and all the runny nose, achy stuff stops. It even stops all the bronchial and asthmatic stuff that usually follows a cold for me. Saved me lots of trips to the doc or hospital!!!!!!!

    • AKM

      I’m not sure why anyone would take antibiotics for a cold. The common cold is a virus. Antibiotics fight bacteria.

    • mike

      Brenda, I bet you would sue as well if you lost your sense of smell.

    • Tyler

      Yes, Brenda. All these people that lost their sense of smell should stop being so “sue happy”. Think how much money they’ll save on air fresheners and food (since it all tastes like nothing now). It’s much more important that the cost of your zicam stay low.

      You’re a selfish moron…

    • Landen

      I use Zicam and I have never had a cold remedy product work like this. I can tell I still had a cold but the symptoms are so minimized that I am able to be up and around and that has never been the case when I catch the flu, I am usually bed-ridden. As I understand it, it is only the the nasal and swab form of Zicam that is causing problems so the solution is simple, use the pill form. That’s what I use because I can’t stand spraying or sticking anything up my nose. Good Luck.

    • Craig

      Exactly! Lower prices on Zicam. Here’s the way to protect your sense of smell, don’t use Zicam and shower at least once a week, YOU are the moron my friend. TV’s too dirty for the kids? DON’T BUY A TV & LOCK YOUR FAT LITTLE MORONS OUTSIDE TO LOOSE SOME WEIGHT. Against Gay Marriage? Simple. DON’T MARRY ANOTHER MAN! Americans in general are so stupid, “sue-happy” and greedy, with their crazy “My Religion is the ONLY Right One” kind of belief system, I’m amazed that we still exist and haven’t self-destructed yet. How about if you are afraid of a product (maybe do something intelligent and do online research first?) keep your sick self and your sick, fat moron children locked up tight with your Holy Novel of choice, (praying for wellness) at home until you are well enough to expose yourself to other smarter, Zicam using folks. I has used Zicam for nine years, no side effects. I researched the risks first, then proceeded forward.

    • Norcal Yankee

      You seriously just gave out your personal phone number? Talk about ignorant…

    • Norcal Yankee

      That is a really good point. I’d like to know how much of the product they were shoving up their noses…and how far. You’re only supposed to go 1/4th of an inch into the nostril.

    • StangSalie

      I love the stuff. I’m disappointed I haven’t been able to find the nasal swabs anywhere this year though. Zinc does help me kick a cold quicker than I normally would but when I take just plain zinc tablets my stomach gets very upset. The nasal swabs were perfect because I got the zinc in my system without irritating my stomach. I hate that it effects others in a negative way but I’d sure hate to go through cold season without it. I’m curious, is it possible that this is an allergic reaction since it doesn’t effect everyone the same?

    • KC

      Obsess much?