Medically reviewed by, Russell Braun RPH
The past few days have been rough. It started off with a scratchy throat and has progressed to a full blown cold. In need of relief, you find yourself in the pharmacy looking for an answer. Zicam looks like it could work. However, you have heard things about zinc and wonder how much of it is in Zicam?
There are lots of articles out there and information overload on social media about medical treatments. Do these big media sites really have good data on if Zicam will work for you?
It is estimated that $35 billion per year is spend on dietary supplements. Zinc products make up millions of dollars of that spend, but is it really worth it?
1. Why is Zinc important?
Zinc is a mineral that is known as a micronutrient. This means small amounts are needed for various chemical processes that go on in your body. Most people don’t realize it is the second most abundant mineral in the body, after iron.
Almost every cell in the body contains zinc, but there is no storage system for it. Therefore, we must get it routinely from the diet. Zinc is present in some foods such as:
- Red meat
- Dairy products
How does the body use Zinc?
Your cells require zinc so that enzymes (large proteins) can do chemical reactions required to stay alive. In fact, it has been discovered that over 300 enzymes in the body require zinc to work properly.
The table below lists some of the common bodily functions zinc is involved in.
|Immune function||Stabilize blood sugar||Heart health|
|Skin function||Eye function||Prevent acne|
|Reduce respiratory infections||Creating protein||Wound healing|
|DNA repair||Cell division||Prevent diarrhea|
|Support pregnancy||Childhood growth||Sense of smell|
2. How much Zinc can you take in a day?
The National Institute of Health Office of Dietary Supplements recommends the following daily amount of zinc to be used:
Women >18: 8 milligrams (mg)
Men >18: 11 milligrams (mg)
These amount are typically easily obtained in a healthy diet with foods listed above.
One problem with zinc is determining how much is actually obtained from dietary supplements. Zinc comes in different forms, which are salts. Zinc sulfate is an example, it has about 23% elemental zinc in the salt. The remaining amount in the strength listed on the product is actually the sulfate.
Example: Zinc Sulfate 220mg x 23% = 51mg of elemental zinc
How much elemental zinc should you take?
The recommended dosage of elemental zinc per day is 15mg – 30mg. That may leave you wondering why zinc sulfate would come as 220mg that is 50mg of elemental zinc. Doesn’t it seem like that may be too much zinc based on the recommended dose?
Is 50mg of Zinc too much?
It appears 50mg would be to high of a dose of zinc. However, not all of the dose would be absorbed from your GI tract. In fact, only about 30% is actually absorbed. That leaves you at 15 mg per day that is actually absorbed.
Taking over 50mg of zinc per day could lead to side effects such as:
- Stomach cramps
- Strange taste in mouth
3. Is there Zinc in Zicam?
Still wondering how much zinc is in Zicam? Well the answer is……. it depends.
There are currently seven Zicam products available for sale. Five of the seven have zinc as part of the Zicam formulation and two do not.
I will tell you which one you should use, but first lets look at how much zinc is in the Zicam products that actually have zinc.
What doe the Zicam label say?
As you can see below there are two different formulations of Zicam. One is for the oral products and the other is for nasally inhaled products. As you can see only oral Zicam has Zinc.
Are you wondering what the heck does 1x, 2x and 4x mean?
Zicam is a homeopathic medication
To understand how much zinc is in Zicam you have to know what a homeopathic medication is. It is an alternative style of medicine, not like normal pills you buy at the pharmacy. Homeopathic medications have a substance in them (in Zicam it is zinc) that has been diluted. There are many dilutions that occur and ultimately the end product is almost undetectable from the substance they diluted it with.
In most cases water is the substance used for the dilution. The belief is that more dilution makes the active ingredients more effective.
Homeopathic medicine is claimed to be similar to pseudoscience. That is because it’s claims are said to be scientific but don’t align with the scientific method. Even the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine said that homeopathy is not consistent with the laws of science.
Imagine taking a coffee bean ground up and putting it in a cup of water. Now take 1 drop of that mixture and dilute it with another 1 million parts of water. Then repeat that 6-12 times to get the 6X or 12X that are part of the Zicam labels.
4. Zicam products taken by mouth
The table below lists the Zicam products that are available which are for oral use. The actual amount of zinc in these zicam products is not provided by the manufacturer. However, they recommend using 1 tablet of the rapid melts every 2-3 hours, up to 7 in a day.
Based on that dosing it is likely there is 7mg or less per tablet. Seven tablets per day times 7mg would be 49mg, which is below the 50mg threshold recommended
5. Zicam products taken nasally
The label for nasal swabs and nasal spray forms of Zicam is shown above. As you can see there is no zinc at all in these products. The zinc has been removed and replaced with:
- Galphimia glauca
- Luffa operculata
Are you wondering why these contain zero zinc?
6. Loss of smell
Zinc gluconate has been shown to be toxic to certain cells inside the nose. It can produce a burning sensation that can lead to loss of smell. In some cases zinc has a been shown to cause this damage permanently.
From 1999 the time Zicam nasal products that contained zinc came on the market until 2009 there were hundreds of reported cases of this side effect. Finally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning about these products in 2009.
After that Matrix the manufacturer of Zicam recalled the products. They then changed the formulation to what is shown above, which contains no zinc.
Money saving tip!
Loss of smell could be a life changing problem. The sense of smell protects us from being alerted to toxic odors such as gas or smoke. However, it is also the key to enjoying foods you eat. The smell of food is just as important as our taste buds. Who wants to have no good tasting food for the rest of their life?
The bottom line is even thought the zinc is gone from this product, how can you be sure it wouldn’t still affect your sense of smell? The other ingredients are not proven to reduce the symptoms of a cold.
Save your money, don’t buy Zicam nasal spray!
If you want to prevent or shorten a cold try other oral zinc products
7. What is the best form of Zinc for your immune system?
Zinc doesn’t necessarily improve the function of your immune system. However, if you are deficient in zinc, it may prevent your immune system from working at its best. Also, it has been shown to help when colds come on.
Most colds are caused by viruses. The most common is the rhinovirus which is able to thrive in the nose, throat and upper respiratory system. Once there this virus begins to replicate thousands of times, which leads to the symptoms of a cold. These symptoms can last 7-10 days.
How does zinc work?
Zinc actually prevents viruses from sticking to the cells in the nose and throat. It may also prevent the virus from replicating as fast. These actions prevent the inflammation that normally occurs during a cold and causes a feeling of stuffiness with difficulty breathing.
An important note is that taking zinc in lozenge form will keep it in the throat longer, which is where the virus lives. Studies have shown that both zinc acetate and zinc gluconate are effective at shortening the length of a cold. It is also best to start taking zinc at the first signs of a cold.
Keep in mind this effect has only been shown to be true with lozenges with ~13mg of elemental zinc taken every three hours.
8. Should you use Zicam?
Zicam claims to do the following:
- “Only clinically proven cold shortening product”
- “Reduce the duration and severity of a cold”
- “Get over your cold faster”
1. The problem with Zicam is the diluted levels of the zinc such as 1x and 2x. You do not really know how much zinc is in the product.
2. The studies they have are done by the Cochrane reviews and do not compare Zicam to placebo.
9. So what is the best product to use?
The best thing to do if you want to take zinc for a cold is:
1. Use a form of zinc that has been studied and shown to be effective.
2. Taking a product that has an actual dosage amount of zinc listed so you know how much you should use.
The table below lists the products that fit this description and compares the cost to Zicam.
|Form of Zinc||Amount of Elemental Zinc||Normal use||Example product|
|Zinc Acetate||30%||Cold remedies|
|Zinc Gluconate||14%||Cold remedies|
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