Is Zicam Effective at Treating Colds?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Zicam is a homeopathic medication. It's thought to shorten the common cold and make it less severe. Zicam products are sold over-the-counter (OTC).

Zinc is the active ingredient in oral (by mouth) Zicam products. Some evidence suggests zinc shortens colds.

But the original zinc nasal spray products were recalled due to side effects. Active ingredients in nasal Zicam products are now plant-based.

This article explores oral and nasal Zicam products, who can safely use them, and how they're used.

Laura Porter / Verywell

Zinc-Based Oral Products

Zicam oral products include:

  • Zicam RapidMelts
  • Medicated Fruit Drops
  • Wild Cherry Lozenges
  • Oral Mist
  • Ultra Crystals

Two forms of zinc are their active ingredient. The labels say zincum aceticum and zincum gluconicum. Those are the homeopathic names for zinc acetate and zinc gluconate.

Most colds are caused by rhinoviruses. These viruses bind with cells lining your nasal passages. Zinc ions are believed to block the virus from doing that.

If you take it when a cold is starting, zinc may help you recover faster. A 2017 review of studies suggested zinc acetate and zinc gluconate lozenges made colds 33% shorter, on average.

Lozenges and other oral Zicam forms target viruses in the mouth and throat. They should be taken as soon as symptoms develop.

When taken by mouth, zinc is considered safe if not overused. However, it can cause nausea and a bad taste in the mouth.

Recap

Oral zinc may keep viruses from binding with cells in your nasal passages. Research shows it can cut cold duration by about a third if taken early.

Homeopathic Nasal Products

Current Zicam nasal-product ingredients are plant-based. They're found in many homeopathic remedies for allergies and cold symptoms.

Homeopathy is based on the theory that "like cures like." That means using highly diluted amounts of something that causes a symptom in order to cure that symptom. Nasal Zicam products follow this methodology.

The listed active ingredients are highly diluted extracts of three plants long used in Mexican, Central American, and South American traditional medicine:

  • Galphimia glauca
  • Luffa operculata
  • Sabadilla

While common in homeopathy, little research supports their use for colds.

The inactive ingredients include the essential oils:

Zicam still labels its nasal products "clinically proven." But the website only offers links to clinical studies for zinc-based products.

Recall of Zinc-Containing Nasal Zicam

Nasal Zicam options used to use zinc as the active ingredient. But studies showed using zinc in the nasal passages may cause permanent side effects. That includes losing your sense of smell.

In June 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned against using Zicam nasal spray or gel swabs. The manufacturer then recalled these products.

New zinc-free nasal Zicam formulations came out in 2015 and are still for sale.

Recap

Nasal Zicam products no longer use zinc because of potentially permanent side effects. Reformulated products are homeopathic and plant-based.

Who Can Use It

The manufacturer says Zicam is for adults and children 12 and over. Younger children should only use the products on the advice of a healthcare provider.

The manufacturer doesn't state what risks Zicam may pose to younger kids.

Generally speaking, you should talk to your healthcare provider before using any homeopathic products. These products aren't stringently regulated by the FDA.

Due to a lack of safety research, Zicam products shouldn't be used during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

Recap

Zicam products are considered safe for adults and children over 12. They may not be safe for younger children or during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

How to Use It

Oral and nasal formulations have different instructions for use.

Oral Formulations

  • These can be taken every three hours.
  • The label says not to take them on an empty stomach.
  • But you shouldn't eat or drink anything for 15 minutes after use.
  • Avoid citrus foods or drinks for at least 30 minutes after use.

Nasal Formulations

Zicam Cold Remedy comes as a nasal spray or a nasal swab.

  • Pump the gel-based spray into each nostril.
  • Then lightly massage it into nasal tissues (from the outside) for five seconds.
  • Rub the nasal swab in each nostril and then massage (from the outside) for five seconds.

Both nasal products can be used every four hours until symptoms are gone.

Summary

Oral zinc in Zicam products may cut the duration of a cold. Nasal products don't use zinc because of side effects. Zicam nasal products are now plant-based. Research doesn't support their effectiveness.

Zicam is marketed for adults and children over 12. Younger children shouldn't take them. If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, they may not be safe for your baby.

A Word From Verywell

Zicam products are just one option for trying to ease your cold symptoms. Check with your healthcare provider if symptoms don't resolve quickly.

Remember that preventing a cold is better than treating one. Wash your hands frequently, avoid sick people, and prevent the spread by staying home if you have symptoms.

Was this page helpful?
4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hemila H. Zinc lozenges and the common cold: a meta-analysis comparing zinc acetate and zinc gluconate, and the role of zinc dosageJRSM Open. 2017;8(5):205427041769429. doi:10.1177/2054270417694291

  2. Rao G, Rowland K. PURLs: Zinc for the common cold--not if, but whenJ Fam Pract. 2011;60(11):669–671.

  3. Hsieh H, Vignesh KS, Deepe GS, Choubey D, Shertzer HG, Genter MB. Mechanistic studies of the toxicity of zinc gluconate in the olfactory neuronal cell line Odora. Toxicol In Vitro. 2016;35:24-30. doi:10.1016/j.tiv.2016.05.003

  4. Kuehn BM. Zicam update. JAMA. 2010;303(16):1587. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.457