Is Zicam Effective at Treating Colds?

In This Article

Zicam is a homeopathic medication that claims to shorten the duration and severity of the common cold. The oral products in the Zicam line (e.g., RapidMelts, Oral Mist, etc.) contain zinc as the active ingredient, and there is some medical evidence that zinc lozenges may shorten colds. The original zinc-containing nasal spray formulations, however, were recalled after federal investigators found that the nasal application of zinc can cause the loss of the sense of smell.

Because of this, nasal Zicam products on stores shelves today have plant-based homeopathic active ingredients. Although considered safer, there is a lack of evidence as to whether they can actually treat colds.

Oral Zicam products contain zinc as their active ingredient, while the nasal products do not. As such, their methods of action differ.

Zinc-Based Oral Products

Zicam oral products (Zicam RapidMelts, Medicated Fruit Drops, Wild Cherry Lozenges, Oral Mist, and Ultra Crystals) contain zinc as their active ingredient in the form of zincum aceticum and zincum gluconicum (the homeopathic names of zinc acetate and zinc gluconate).

The theory is that zinc ions can block rhinoviruses (the most common viruses that cause colds) at the point where they bind to the cells lining the respiratory passages.

Taken at the start of a cold, zinc may reduce the duration of a cold. In fact, a 2017 review of placebo-controlled studies published Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Open reported that zinc acetate and zinc gluconate lozenges shortened the duration of cold by 33%, on average.

Lozenges and other oral Zicam applications especially target viruses in the oral cavity and throat, and should be taken as soon as symptoms develop.

When taken by mouth, zinc is considered safe if not overused. However, zinc can have unpleasant side effects, including leaving a bad taste in the mouth and nausea.

Homeopathic Nasal Products

The ingredients in Zicam nasal products available today are mostly plant-based and found in other homeopathic remedies for allergies and cold symptoms.

Homeopathic products are based on the theory that "like cures like," meaning that highly diluted amounts of a substance are used to provoke a symptom in order to cure that very symptom. Nasal Zicam products follow this methodology.

The listed active ingredients are highly diluted extracts of Galphimia glauca, Luffa operculata, and Sabadilla. While commonly used in homeopathy, there is little qualitative research to support their use in treating colds.

The inactive ingredients include eucalyptol (from eucalyptus), eugenol (from clove oil), and menthol.

Zicam continues to label its nasal products as "clinically-proven," although their website does not offer links to any clinical studies other than for zinc-based products.

Recall of Zinc-Containing Nasal Zicam

Nasal Zicam options were once formulated with zinc as the active ingredient, with the idea that they worked as the oral products do. But studies showed that the application of zinc to nasal passages may cause irreversible side effects, including the loss of smell.

As such, in June 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned consumers not to use Zicam nasal spray or gel swabs because they may cause a permanent loss of the sense of smell. The manufacturer, Matrixx Initiatives, recalled these products after the warning was issued. As a result, Zicam nasal products were reformulated to no longer contain zinc.

The new nasal Zicam formulations became available in 2015 and are sold today.

Who Can Use It

According to the manufacturer, Zicam can be used by adults and children 12 and over. Children under 12 should only use Zicam under the direction of a pediatrician or family doctor. The manufacturer does not state what risks Zicam poses to younger children.

Generally speaking, all homeopathic products should only be used in adults or children after consultation with a qualified health professional. These products are not stringently regulated by the FDA and should be avoided in children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers due to the lack of safety research.

Homeopathic products are minimally regulated (as dietary supplements) and do not undergo the same safety and efficacy testing as prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

How to Use It

The oral formulations that contain zinc can be taken every three hours. The manufacturer recommends not taking these products on an empty stomach, but also refraining from food or drink for 15 minutes after use. Also, avoid citrus foods or drinks for at least 30 minutes.

Zicam Cold Remedy can be given as a nasal spray or a nasal swab:

  • The gel-based spray is pumped into each nostril and then lightly massaged into nasal tissues (from the outside) with a finger for five seconds.
  • The nasal swab is rubbed in each nostril and then massaged (from the outside) with a finger for five seconds.

Both formulations can be used every four hours until symptoms resolve.

A Word From Verywell

Given some supportive research regarding zinc and colds, using oral Zicam products may help. While you may hear some anecdotal support for the use of nasal Zicam products, research to support their effectiveness in treating colds is lacking. Regardless of how you opt to ease your cold symptoms, check in with your doctor if you are self-treating but not getting better.

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