Three Over-The-Counter Cold Products Are Too Risky: What You Should Know

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning on June 16, 2009 about the risks of three over-the-counter cold remedies made by Matrixx Initiatives under the brand name Zicam. The products include:

  • Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Gel
  • Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Swabs
  • Zicam Cold Remedy Swabs, Kids Size (discontinued product)[1]

This was not an official recall, but the company voluntarily removed these products from the shelves.[2]

The product’s safety is being called into question after the FDA received reports that users lost their sense of smell. Some reported that the loss of smell occurred after just one dose, while others reported that it occurred after repeated use. Loss of smell poses a serious health risk because it prevents an individual from detecting toxic fumes, gas, smoke, spoiled food, and other environmental hazards.[1] And, of course, losing sense of smell affects the quality of anyone’s life, especially the enjoyment of eating. When we taste something, our sense of smell is more responsible for that sensation than our actual taste buds.[3]

What is Zicam, and What About it is Causing People to Lose Their Sense of Smell?

Zicam is marketed as “an over-the-counter homeopathic medicine” that will “reduce the duration and severity of the common cold when taken at the first sign of cold symptoms.” The nasal gel is applied directly inside the nostrils, as is the medication on the nasal swabs.[2]

The active ingredient in these specific Zicam products is zinc gluconate. Some experts argue that the FDA should have seen this coming, because the compound’s damaging effects were discovered decades ago, when a group of doctors experimented with zinc gluconate as a preventative measure for polio in the 1930’s. In that experiment, not only was the treatment proven ineffective, but some of the patients lost their sense of smell.[4]

Zicam and other zinc gluconate solutions can potentially be beneficial when ingested through the mouth, injected into the bloodstream, or applied on the skin. However, the compound can be toxic if it reaches certain cells or nerve receptors located inside the nasal cavity. It is possible for these cells and receptors to come into contact with zinc gluconate when using a product like Zicam, when either inserting the swab/spraying device too far into the nose, spraying too hard, or sniffing after the initial application. When zinc gluconate comes into contact with those cells, an intense burning sensation may occur, followed by a loss of smell and/or taste.[4]

Perhaps most shocking, the FDA and the makers of Zicam have received hundred of complaints about these products since they were first sold in 1999.[5] Additionally, Matrixx has settled hundred of lawsuits, 340 in 2006 alone.[6]

If you have experienced any symptoms similar to those described here after using Zicam or other zinc gluconate containing products, you are advised to consult a physician promptly.

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff. 


  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “FDA Advises Consumers Not To Use Certain Zicam Cold Remedies.” Press release. FDA Advises Consumers Not To Use Certain Zicam Cold Remedies. 16 June 2009; 17 June 2009
  2. Zicam. 17 June 2009
  3. Fincannon, Joy, and Farrokh Sohrabi. “A Question of Taste–Or Is It Smell?” Health Encyclopedia. University of Rochester Medical Center, n.d. Web. 04 Aug. 2014
  4. Jafek, Bruce W., Miriam R. Linschoten, and Bruce W. Murrow. “Anosmia after Intranasal Zinc Gluconate Use.” American Journal of Rhinology 18 (2004): 137-41. 19 June 2009
  5. Loss of Sense of Smell with Intranasal Cold Remedies Containing Zinc.” U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page. 19 June 2009
  6. Harris, Gardiner. “F.D.A. Warns Against Use of Popular Cold Remedy .” The New York Times. 16 June 2009. 19 June 2009