Throw Out Your Zicam, and Rethink Other Alternative Cold Remedies

Popular remedy causes a loss in smell, but should we also worry about unknown risks in other remedies?

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Today the Food and Drug Administration announced that we should no longer use a popular over-the-counter cold remedy—Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Gel and Nasal Swabs—because it could cause a long-lasting or permanent loss in our sense of smell, a condition called anosmia. The FDA says it has received more than 130 reports from Zicam users who said their ability to smell became impaired—in some cases, after using the product only once. It goes without saying that we need our noses to, say, smell smoke when there's a fire, milk when it's rancid, and significantly enhance the taste of our food.

Zicam's website is still up and running, with no mention, as yet, of the warning letter that its manufacturer, Matrixx Initiatives, received from the FDA. The agency told the company to stop marketing Zicam unless it applies for a formal drug approval. Matrixx Initiatives responded to my inquiry with an E-mailed statement, which reads, in part:

Based on the FDA's action, the company has suspended shipments of these products and will reimburse any customer desiring a refund. However, the company believes the cumulative body of independent scientific and medical evidence supports both the safety and efficacy of Zicam intranasal cold remedy products. Matrixx Initiatives stands behind the science of its products and its belief that there is no causal link between its intranasal gel products and anosmia. For this reason, Matrixx Initiatives believes that the FDA action is unwarranted and will seek a meeting with the FDA to review the company's product safety data. 

On a personal note, I'm happy I forgot about the Zicam nasal swabs sitting in my medicine cabinet when I first caught a nasty cold a few days ago. My mom encouraged me to try the homeopathic product years ago, swearing that it cut down on the severity of her colds. I've swabbed my nose a few times and didn't notice any sign that it worked. Still, every time she hears that I'm coming down with a cold, she hounds me to use it. (She's in Europe now, so she couldn't pester me this time; hence, I forgot.)

But I have to admit that I didn't really worry about the safety of Zicam even if I wasn't sure of its effectiveness. And many Americans felt the same way. A government survey last December found that 38 percent of people use some type of complementary or alternative remedy. Women, in particular, use alternative remedies: 43 percent of us compared with 34 percent of men. But as the FDA warning letter reminds us, alternative remedies aren't approved as drugs. They don't have to pass through the regulatory hoops that prove drugs' safety and effectiveness. Thus, we have no idea when we buy alternative remedies like Zicam whether we're wasting our money or, worse, putting ourselves at risk.

So I've got three things on my to-do list for today: Throw out my Zicam when I get home. Send my mom an E-mail telling her to chuck her own stash when she returns. And throw out any other "remedies" in my cabinet that aren't regulated as drugs.