Medically reviewed by, Russell Braun RPH
You feel that strange soreness in the back of your throat. It can’t be the start of a cold, you don’t have time for that! Wanting to ensure this doesn’t progress into a full on sickness you head to the pharmacy. Once there, you are overwhelmed by the number of products that almost claim to cure the common cold. Do they really work? What about Zicam and Airborne?
Before we compare those medications specifically lets look at a few things that are important to consider first.
1. What are immune boosters?
Boosting the power of your immune system sounds like a great idea… right? It is important to remember the immune system is just that, a system. There are many different things that work together to provide immunity. Therefore taking a supplement that may prop up one part of the system is fine, but it won’t necessarily boost the entire system.
Very few products actually have been proven to help fight off or protect us from disease. Just keep this in mind as you see all of the products that “support” or “boost” immunity.
Is it just marketing?
Zicam and Airborne have long been marketed for this purpose. In this post we will compare these medications to answer the big question. Which of them is the better option Zicam vs Airborne?
However, no healthcare professional should jump right into medication without first reviewing a few basic non medication tips. You know the boring stuff that has a real impact!
2. Before Any Medication Try Lifestyle Changes!
The lifestyle choices you make can affect how strong your immune system is. These lifestyle changes can help lower your risk of getting a cold and therefore prevent the need for medication.
Every day you are in a battle with germs, viruses and chronic illness. Making healthy choices prevents these things from getting the upper hand on you.
The immune system can be boosted naturally by consuming important vitamins and minerals you need from the food you eat. A balanced diet that contains the foods listed below will help you ensure you have enough of the important vitamins and minerals.
- Whole grains, not the processed kind
- Dairy products
- Lean protein
It is hard to argue the improvement in immunity for people who are active compared to those who are not. Even moderate activity, such as walking can provide major benefits. A study in the American Journal of Medicine found that people who walked for 30 minutes per day over a year had only half the number of the colds compared to a group that did not walk.
If you hate the gym or exercising it doesn’t have to be that kind of activity. You can also try other ways of moving such as Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT).
Regular washing of the hands with soap and water for at least 30 seconds is a sure fire way to reduce your chances of getting a cold.
The number one way to prevent getting a cold due to influenza is to get a flu vaccine. The vaccine prevents millions of illnesses per year according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Chronic stress releases a hormone called cortisol. While it is great for dealing with stress in the short term, over time it can have serious consequences. On of the big ones is weakening your immune system and putting you at risk for a cold.
How to destress?
- Practice deep breathing
- Learn meditation
- Be outside in nature
- Seek stress counseling
When we sleep is the time used to repair and rebuild our body. This repair and rebuilding includes your immune system. Less sleep equals less immune repair and over time that will make you more susceptible to colds.
- Sleepfoundation.org recommends adults be in the range of 7-9 hours of sleep for optimal health.
Smoking is bad for you for numerous reasons. When it comes to getting a cold, smoking directly weakens the defenses in the respiratory tract that help prevent colds.
Zicam contains zincum aceticum and zincum gluconicum as the active ingredients. Seven Zicam products are on the market today, five of them have these two ingredients. The other two don’t actually contain Zinc and should be avoided.
Zicam is a homeopathic remedy and that is important to understand before you rush out to buy it.
What is homeopathy?
Homeopathy 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.
Water is typically used for the dilution(s). The school of homeopathy believes more dilutions make the active ingredients more effective.
Homeopathic medicine does not align with the scientific method that modern western medicine is based on. In fact, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine does not believe homeopathy is consistent with the laws of science.
Imagine taking your blood pressure medicine, grinding it 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 1-2 times to get number of dilutions on the label noted as 1x or 2x.
As you can see below there are five different formulations of Zicam taken by mouth. The two that do not contain zinc are nasal products. These should be avoided due to lack of efficacy and potential side effects from applying them to the nose.
Zicam has been on the market since the 1990’s and the oral forms are considered to be safe as it has been widely used. However, in 2009 the Food and Drug Administration(FDA) issued a warning about Zicam nasal products. Hundreds of people had reported loss of the sense of smell after use.
This is why the Zicam nasal products today no longer contain zinc.
Directions for use are to use one tablet or drop at the first onset of cold symptoms. Then repeat every 2 to 3 hours, be careful not to take more than 7 in a 24 hour period.
- Contains zinc which has been proven to reduce the length and severity of a cold. The question with Zicam is how much zinc does it contain?
- Several different dosage forms are available, which can be good if you have a sore throat.
- Has been widely used and seems to be safe when taken orally.
- Claims made in marketing such as “get over cold faster” or “only clinically proven cold shortening product” have not been proven to be true.
- There is no way to know how much zinc is actually in the product.
- Homeopathic medications are considered dietary supplements. This means they Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not evaluate them for safety or efficacy.
- One box of Zicam oral costs between $10 to $12 depending on the dosage form.
- They contain 25 tablets, if using up to 7 per day one bottle is ~4 day supply.
- Buying other generic zinc products might prove a cheaper option.
**Prices subject to change.
Airborne contains the active ingredients listed below. In addition a few formulations contain Elderberry, a natural remedy that is claimed to help fight cold symptoms. There are several different flavors available for all different taste preferences.
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
|Gummies||Effervescent tablets||Chewable tablets|
The story goes that a teacher came up with the formula for Airborne and it was promoted on Oprah to get it’s start. The manufacturer claims it is a proprietary crafted herbal blend.
The only problem? It doesn’t tell you how much of each ingredient is present. Other than listing that it contains 1,000mg of vitamin C in each dose you have no idea on other ingredients.
Could you imagine your doctor prescribing you a cholesterol pill and never knowing what the dose was? Doesn’t really add up does it?
The directions are slightly different for each Airborne product. Make sure to read the label closely if you do use Airborne.
- Gummmies 4 daily
- Effervescent tablets 1 daily
- Chewable tablets 2 daily
- Is typically cheaper than Zicam depending on the form you buy.
- Many different flavors are available.
- Only needs to be taken once per day.
- Contains Vitamins A, C, E along with zinc which all have some evidence supporting their use in helping with cold symptoms and duration.
- Does not state how much of each vitamin and mineral is in the product other than vitamin C. Without knowing how much the product contains it is hard to determine if it would actually be beneficial based on clinical trials.
- There is a risk of vitamin A toxicity as it can accumulate in the body over time. This makes long term use of Airborne to prevent a cold less appealing.
- Although not a homeopathic medication like Zicam, it is still a dietary supplement. These products are not tested by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for safety and efficacy
- In 2008 the manufacturer paid a $40 million settlement for marketing claims that were not true.
The costs are listed in the table below, as you can see these are less than Zicam because you get a larger day supply.
|Chewable tablets||Effervescent tabets||Gummies|
|32 tablets bottle||20 tablet bottle||42 count bottle|
|16 day supply||20 day supply||10 day supply|
**Prices subject to change.
5. Zicam vs Airborne: The Similarities
These two products have a few key similarities. Both contain zinc as one of the active ingredients. Unfortunately, neither product reveals how much zinc it actually contains.
Likewise, both come in different forms such as gummies or chewable tablets. Both product also have different flavors. This is a bonus because taking medicine that tastes bad when you are sick is not very appealing.
Zicam and Airborne are also sold as dietary supplements. Therefore, they are not regulated by the FDA for safety or efficacy. Homeopathic medications like Zicam still fall under the category of dietary supplement in the eyes of the FDA.
Do not to get caught up in the marketing slogans seen on dietary supplements. If there was clear evidence of them being effective treatments they would be sold as Over The Counter (OTC) products.
6. Zicam vs Airborne: The Differences
Differences, between Zicam and Airborne start with the active ingredients. Zinc is in both products, but some amount of Vitamins A, C and E are in Airborne as well as other ingredients.
Zicam does not offer an effervescent tablet option like Airborne does. Some people like to drink the dose instead of chewing a gummy or tablet. This may be an Airborne advantage for those with a sore throat. However, Zicam does have oral drops which would also be easy to take.
Finally, as mentioned Zicam is a homeopathic product and Airborne is not. Based on how you feel about homeopathy and the dilution of the main ingredient may sway you one way or the other.
7. Zicam vs Airborne FAQs
Why does Zicam work so well?
Zinc prevents viruses from binding to and entering human cells. It may also stop the virus from making more copies of itself. Because most viruses attack the nose and mouth area, having products that provide high levels of zinc in the mouth is a good idea.
Zicam contains some amount of zinc so this is why it could be effective if taken at the first sign of a cold.
Is Airborne effective?
Airborne does not have clinical trials that prove it is effective. However, many people have taken Airborne and some will swear by it. This probably has to do with something called the placebo effect. Which essentially means you believe the treatment is working even though it may not be actually doing anything.
Comparing a drugs effect to placebo is the whole idea of clinical trials. Why has the Airborne manufacturer not done a clinical trial? There is no way to be for sure, but it may be just a placebo effect.
Is Airborne FDA approved?
No, Airborne is not FDA approved. It is sold as a dietary supplement and because of that does not require it to be FDA approved.
Can you take zinc and Airborne together?
There are no drug interactions between Airborne and Zinc. Therefore they could be taken together.
There is no body storage of zinc so it all gets eliminated by the body. That means it probably would not become toxic to you over time if you did take both products.
However, both products contain Zinc, so it may not make sense to take them both. The BestRxforSavings tip is to save your money and only take one product.
Does Airborne work if you already have a cold?
Airborne does not have any evidence to support it can prevent colds. However, some of the ingredients in Airborne have been shown to help shorten the symptoms and the duration. Keep in mind the amount of time it cuts off your cold may only be a day or less on average.
The ingredients that have been shown to help with cold symptoms need to be taken at the same dosage as they were studied at to assume they will have a similar affect. Unfortunately, Airborne does not indicate how much of each ingredient is in the product.
Is Zicam safe?
Oral Zicam products are generally accepted to be safe to use. Many patients use these products each year and safety concerns have not been widely reported.
That was not the case for the Zicam nasal products that used to contain zinc prior to 2009. Zicam nasal products today no longer contain zinc. It was removed because it was causing many patients to lose their sense of smell. However, now the nasal products contain ingredients that have not been shown to actually help with colds.
Bottom line, oral Zicam products are safe and the nasal products don’t have zinc and probably shouldn’t be used anyway.
Does Zicam have side effects?
Zicam does not list any side effects on their website. There are some listed for Zicam products that contain another drug called oxymetolazine. Those side effects are the ones related to oxymetolazine and not the zinc in Zicam.
Typical side effects that may be seen with zinc supplements in general include:
- Metallic taste
- Kidney problems
- Decreased copper absorption
Oral Zicam products would not be considered addictive. However, if using nasal Zicam that contains oxymetolazine, then it could be.
This ingreient, which is also in Afrin and other Over The Counter (OTC) nasal sprays and can be addictive. It can also cause something called rebound congestion that keeps you feeling stuffed up until you stop using it.
What are side effects of Airborne?
Airborne does not list side effects for their product. However, based on the side effects of the ingredients you might expect to see some of the following.
- Abdominal pain
Airborne contains vitamin A!
Vitamin A can be dangerous if it accumulates in the body. Here are some symptoms that you may notice from as toxicity.
|Severe diarrhea||Muscle weakness|
|Vomiting||Tingling and numbness|
What should you not take with Zinc?
The table below lists some prescription medications that may interact with Zinc.
|Antibiotics||Zinc may decrease absorption of these antibiotics.||Ciprofloxacin (Cipro)|
|Blood pressure medications||May decrease your zinc level.||Benazepril (Lotensin)|
Lisinopril ( Zestril)
|NSAID pain medications||Zinc can decrease the effect of these drugs.||Ibuprofen (Motrin)|
|Thiazide diuretics||These medications can lower your zinc level.||Chlorothiazde (Diuril)|
Also, any woman who is pregnant should not take zinc, especially amounts over 40mg per day.
What is the best over the counter immune booster?
There are many products on the market that claim to boost your immune system. How can you find the best option for you? There are five primary vitamins and minerals that have been shown to help with cold symptoms.
The problem is not all products have these ingredients in the amounts that have been shown to be effective.
Another way to find the best products is to ask a pharmacist. U.S. News and World reports surveyed pharmacists to see what products they thought were most appropriate. The top categories of immune system support and zinc cold remedies are listed in the table below.
|Immune system support||Zinc cold remedies|
7. In Conclusion
Zicam and Airborne both make products that are similar. The ingredients have been shown to be effective. However, the products themselves have no proof of efficacy in clinical trials.
Both are recommended by pharmacists, which means they may have some effect, even if it is a placebo one.
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Share your story
Have you used Zicam or Airborne? Also, please share how they worked for you. Chime in below with your comments and thoughts.