February 17th, 2011

Zinc May Work for Colds — But Don’t Pretend It’s Not a Drug

Does zinc work for colds?

Apparently it does, according to this Cochrane Review.  From the “Plain Language Summary”:

This review identified 15 randomized controlled trials, enrolling 1360 participants of all age groups, comparing zinc with placebo (no zinc). We found that zinc (lozenges or syrup) is beneficial in reducing the duration and severity of the common cold in healthy people, when taken within 24 hours of onset of symptoms. People taking zinc are also less likely to have persistence of their cold symptoms beyond seven days of treatment.

Based on these results, and the ecstatic “I-told-you-so” reader comments on this New York Times report, there is likely something real going on here.  It’s potentially pretty exciting, actually — a treatment for the cold!

But one thing is clear:  Zinc for colds should be considered a drug — even though you can get it without a prescription, the FDA hasn’t reviewed it, and the lozenges may carry the word “natural” or “organic” on the label.

Why?  Because in addition to their benefits, all drugs have side effects.  And because there’s nothing “natural” about zinc supplements in people who don’t have zinc deficiency, it won’t be long before more side effects (remember this one with zinc nasal swabs?) or drug interactions occur in a least some individuals.

So stay tuned for further research on this area — and be ready for results that may be good and not-so-good.

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HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

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