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Patients Claim Popular Nasal Spray Causes Loss Of Smell

Cold Remedy Is Available Over The Counter

May 12, 2004 |

It's a popular cold remedy available over the counter and it promises to shorten your cold and reduce the severity of your symptoms. But some people who've used Zicam believe that promise comes with a price.

Dozens of patients across the country claim they've suffered permanent loss of smell after using Zicam nasal gel.

The first lawsuit against the makers of Zicam was filed in U.S. District Court in Michigan.

While the plaintiffs won't talk because of the pending litigation, other patients are talking. Gail Newman first tried Zicam nasal gel in October of last year.

"I got a severe bloody nose, so I decided I wouldn't use it again," said Newman.

But a few months later, she changed her mind.

"I felt like I was coming down with a cold again, so I decided I would give it another go," said Newman.

Newman said she suffered severe damage to her sense of smell and taste.

She didn't realize how drastic and dangerous the injury was until she and her sister were mopping the floor with bleach and water.

"My niece and her little boy came down and said, 'Mom, open the door. You're gonna kill us with that smell.' And I turned around and said 'What smell?' "

It's a story Dr. Alan Hirsch has heard before.

"They'd spray the Zicam in. They'd develop a burning sensation or irritation and immediately lose their sense of smell," said Hirsch.

Hirsch, a neurologist and researcher in smell and taste, first raised concerns about Zicam nasal gel in 1999.

"It's been known since the early '30s that zinc actually can cause smell loss," said Hirsch.

Hirsch believes the problem is an ingredient called zinc gluconate or zincum gluconicum.

It's the active ingredient in Zicam nasal gel and a similar product called Cold-Eeze.

"The theory is that maybe zinc is toxic to the olfactory nerve at the top of the nose," said Hirsch.

Some specialists believe the nasal gel reaches farther into the upper nose than most cold remedies, putting it in direct contact with the olfactory or smell nerves.

"The nerve is basically being burned or being destroyed," said Hirsch.

The makers of Zicam and Cold-Eeze dispute the allegations. Both said there were no reports of diminished or lost sense of smell in previous clinical studies.

Doctors Local 4 spoke with were also somewhat skeptical.

"Because of the rarity of the complication of loss of smell, they're going to need to track it in large groups of patients possibly over years before a final answer is reached," said Dr. Arthur Rosner, an otolaryngologist at Beaumont Hospital.

Rosner is an ear, nose, and throat specialist based in Sterling Heights. He said having a cold in the first place is one of the most common causes of smell loss.

It makes it difficult to determine if it's the medication or the virus causing the problem. Rosner would like to see more research into the allegations about Zicam.

The Food and Drug Administration confirms it has received reports from patients and is reviewing the information.

It's small comfort to patients like Newman. She said the little pleasures like smelling flowers or tasting good food are gone.

"I still eat the same things. I have to eat. Half the time, I can't taste it. Sometimes I can taste it. But afterwards the metallic taste comes back in my mouth," she said.

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