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Popular Cold Remedy Has Unexpected Side Effects

Apr 29, 2004 | It is one of the most popular cold remedies on the market. In five years, millions of bottles of Zicam have been sold with the promise that it could shorten the duration of a cold. But now, some claim it has an unexpected side effect that's robbing them of something we all take for granted.

When Ellen Ziegler felt the sniffles coming on last November, she tried Zicam. It stopped her symptoms in three days. But something else stopped, too.

“I found over the next week to ten days I had totally lost my sense of smell and taste," Ziegler said.

Dr. Alan Hirsch has seen 50 patients like Ziegler.

"They'd spray the Zicam in, experience intense burning, or pain in the nose, and then have total loss of smell,” Hirsch said.

Zicam contains zinc gluconate, a type of salt. A pump device "splatters" it inside the nostrils. Instructions state: "do not sniff up the gel."

"I followed the directions and used it for the specified amount of time," Ziegler said.

But Terence Davidson, the director of the University of California's Nasal Dysfunction Clinic, believes that zinc is somehow coming into contact with the olfactory nerve, high in the nose.

"You put zinc on the olfactory receptor and you effectively kill the receptor. It's like pouring acid on an open wound," Davidson said.

Doctors discovered the link to smell loss in the 1930's when they tried to use zinc to prevent polio. It's still widely used to destroy smell in laboratory animals.

"If it does this in animals, do we really want to give it to people?" Hirsch said.

But the manufacturer insists zinc gluconate is a different form of zinc. President and CEO Carl Johnson calls the allegations misleading and misguided.

"We are unaware of anything in medical literature that links zinc gluconate, the active ingredient in our product to loss of smell," Johnson said.

Johnson says two company studies have found no link to smell loss. He calls the allegations an attempt to devalue the company's stock. And says, while he has great concern for people claiming to be affected, he doesn't buy it.

"If the product is being suggested to them as a possible cause, that may be what they are latching onto," Johnson said.

Multiple lawsuits have now been filed in at least 4 states. The FDA confirms it's investigating dozens of complaints.

Dr. Hirsch is encouraged that Zeigler has regained about 25 percent of her ability to smell, but says other patients have not.

"My view is that the company ought to at least tell people, if you spray this up your nose, you may loose your smell forever,” Hirsch said.

The manufacturer says it will fully cooperate with the FDA, and has agreed to conduct more animal and human studies.

The company says the cold virus itself can also cause loss of smell, and doctors agree that happens frequently. However, doctors tell us that in cases of viruses, smell always comes back.

Ironically, people with full-blown colds may be protected. Their congestion may block sprays from reaching the olfactory nerve.

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