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Zicam Cold Remedy Warning

Anonymous 2006 email alert blames zinc-based nasal cold remedy Zicam for cases of anosmia (loss of the sense of smell).

Description: Email rumor
Circulating since: Sep. 2006
Status: (UPDATED) FDA has issued a consumer warning

Email example contributed by Diane B., Sep. 26, 2006:

I need to warn you about a product on the market and hopefully you will pass it on to as many people as possible. I felt like I was coming down with a cold last Friday and because I'm around sick family members so much I wanted possibly head it off. I used Zicam, which is a gel nose spray which claims to keep a cold from becoming "full blown." Immediately I had an intense, horrible burning in my nasal/sinus passages. The skin on my face hurt to touch and I had pain and burning so that it hurt to move my head. My husband was here and kept asking if I wanted to go to the ER but the thought of getting in a car was overwhelming. My face was burning hot and my nasal passages were so swollen that I couldn't breathe through my nose and I could see the swelling when I looked in the mirror. It lasted for about three hours and it was Labor Day weekend and I couldn't see a Dr. until Tuesday. I have seen two ENT specialists in the last two days because I have lost, totally lost all ability to taste or smell. They both told me the same thing and suggested an immediate course of action. This is called "chemical trauma' and most times is permanent. I'm going to have a CT scan on Monday and am on a high dose of the steroid, Prednisone for two weeks. If there is even a thread of the olfactory nerve left, it will help to rejuvenate what is left. I have been on the Internet (just put in Zicam) and there are hundreds of people who have had this happen. I am so angry and devastated and saddened right now that I don't know how to get through this. I cannot handle the thought of never tasting food again or trying a new recipe or smelling a Thanksgiving turkey. Cooking has been an absolute passion of mine for as long as I can remember and at the moment I don't see the point of even putting dressing on a salad. I keep thinking that this cannot be happening to me. I suck on a lemon, bite down on a clove of garlic, smell a bottle of ammonia, nail polish remover, anything. I'm starting by tellling people I love. PLEASE don't use Zicam, tell your friends.

2009 Update: Responding to more than 130 consumer complaints citing a loss of the sense of smell after using Zicam zinc-based intranasal cold remedies, on June 16, 2009 the U.S. Food & Drug Administration ordered Matrixx Initiatives to stop selling the products without approval. The FDA also warned consumers to stop using the products. "We are concerned that consumers may unknowingly use a product that could cause serious harm," said FDA spokesperson Janet Woodcock, "and therefore we are advising them not to use these products for any reason.” Read more...

2006 Analysis: Zicam Nasal Gel is a zinc-based cold remedy manufactured by Matrixx Initiatives, which claims in its advertising that the product shortens the duration of colds and reduces the severity of cold symptoms. Clinical trials have generally supported these claims, and the product has proven to be very popular with consumers.

Over the past few years, however, hundreds of individuals have reported suffering anosmia -- the loss of the sense of smell -- as a result of using the product, which consists of a zinc gluconate gel pumped directly into the nose (other zinc remedies such as lozenges and throat sprays have apparently produced no such side effects). While the manufacturer denies that Zicam can cause any such adverse reaction, some physicians, such as otolaryngologist Dr. Bruce Jafek, who has attended many Zicam-related anosmia cases, believe that it can, and does.

"In my opinion," Jafek told TheDenverChannel.com in January 2006, "the product is dangerous in putting zinc ions into the nose. If a person wishes to continue to use this product certainly they should be warned that they could lose their sense of smell. It's an uncommon problem but for the person who lose their sense of smell, it's devastating."

"Uncommon" is an accurate characterization of the problem, of which there have been several hundred cases reported out of an estimated "tens of millions" of doses administered. Clearly, the vast majority of Zicam users have suffered no ill effects. As of 2004, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration acknowledged investigating some consumer complaints against Zicam, but the agency has yet to release its findings or issue any statements concerning the product's safety.

Class-action lawsuit settled for $12 million

Last January, Matrixx Initiatives paid out a $12 million settlement to approximately 300 plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit, but admitted no fault, citing other possible causes for the condition. With more lawsuits pending, the company continues to maintain their product is safe. Are they right? Is it really safe?

As my colleague Kristina Duda, About.com's Colds & Flu Guide, points out, in the absence of published clinical trials specifically addressing the issue, there is no definitive answer to this question. Yet.

In the meantime, caveat emptor.

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Sources and further reading:

Zicam and the Loss of Sense of Smell
About.com: Colds & Flu, 7 November 2006

Cold Remedy Blamed for Loss of Taste, Smell
Local6.com, 15 February 2006

Nasal Gel Caused Loss of Smell, Suits Claim
Knight Ridder News Service, 3 February 2006

Zicam Maker Settles Lawsuit Over Users' Loss of Smell
TheDenverChannel.com, 23 January 2006

Zinc Sprays Blamed for Loss of Smell, Taste
Knight Ridder News Service, 28 February 2005

Study Supports Claim Some Nose Sprays Can Cause Loss of Smell
TheDenverChannel.com, 30 September 2004

Zicam and Smell Loss
Taste and Smell Clinic (Washington, DC), April 2004

Matrixx Initiatives Reaffirms Safety of Intranasal Zicam(R) Cold Remedy
News release, Matrixx Initiatives (manufacturer of Zicam), 6 February 2004

User Says Zicam Robbed Her of Sense of Smell
KMGH-TV News, 5 February 2004

Last updated: 06/16/09

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