The Healthy Skeptic: Homeopathic cold remedies


Despite all of the cold remedies that have been proposed through the years, people still somehow manage to sniffle and sneeze. The truth is, modern medicine has yet to conquer the common cold. Sure, you could take NyQuil Multi-Symptom or Alka-Seltzer Plus Cold & Cough to clear up your head, but such medications can cause drowsiness, nervousness, sleep problems and other side effects. And they won’t necessarily help your cold go away any faster, either.

Children’s colds are especially hard to treat, says Dr. James Taylor, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Colds are a huge reason why parents bring their kids to a physician, and we have very little to offer,” he says. In 2010, the FDA recalled many children’s cold remedies — including syrups and drops from Tylenol, Motrin and Zyrtec — because of safety concerns.

Looking for relief without risks, many cold sufferers have turned to homeopathic pills and liquids, which are often heavily diluted — sometimes to the point where few to no molecules of the active ingredient remain.


Zicam RapidMelts, perhaps the most widely available homeopathic cold remedy, is sold at practically every drug store. According to the label, the single active ingredient, zincum gluconicum, has a 1X dilution. This means that one part of zincum gluconicum (a zinc compound) was diluted in 10 parts water before it was added to the lozenge. The label doesn’t say how much zinc is in the product, but a customer service representative reached by phone said each lozenge contains 10 mg. of zinc, a little less than you’d get from a typical multivitamin.

Users are instructed to dissolve one lozenge in the mouth as soon as they notice cold symptoms, then take another lozenge every three hours until the symptoms disappear. A bottle of 25 tablets costs about $13. According to the label, Zicam RapidMelts are recommended for adults and children ages 3 or older.

Zicam RapidMelts shouldn’t be confused with Zicam Nasal Gel or Zicam Swabs. Matrixx Initiatives, the company behind Zicam, voluntarily recalled these products in 2009 after the FDA warned that more than 130 users had lost their sense of smell.

Hyland’s Cold ‘n Cough 4 Kids, sold in many drug stores, follows the more traditional blueprint for homeopathic remedies. Homeopaths generally believe that dilution makes the active ingredients more effective — the greater the dilution, the greater the relief. Following that logic, Cold ‘n Cough 4 Kids is diluted to the extreme.

According to the label, all of the active ingredients have a dilution of at least 6X, which means one part ingredient per million parts water. Some of the ingredients, including sulphur, have a dilution of 12X, which is a million times less concentrated than the 6X dilution. In other words, don’t expect to get a whiff of rotten eggs when you open the bottle.

According to the label, Cold ‘n Cough 4 Kids is recommended for cold sufferers ages 2 and up. Children ages 2 to 5 can take a teaspoon every four hours. Children ages 6 to 12 can take two teaspoons every four hours, and children and adults over 12 can take 3 teaspoons every four hours. A 4-oz. bottle (24 teaspoons) costs about $5.


The claims. According to the label, Zicam RapidMelts will “reduce the duration and severity of a cold.” It also says you can “get over your cold faster with Zicam.” Representatives from Zicam were unavailable for comment.

The website for Hyland’s Cold ‘n Cough 4 Kids says the “100 percent natural formula offers safe and effective symptom relief from common cold symptoms, including sneezing, sore throat and congestion.” J.P. Borneman, chairman and chief executive of Hyland’s Inc., says that homeopathic products work by “stimulating the body’s natural healing process.” He adds that the company has received positive feedback from parents.

The bottom line: Homeopathy has its share of devoted followers, but the field doesn’t make scientific sense, says William Gleason, an associate professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Most products are so diluted, he says, that there’s “no longer any medicine in the medicine.”

Proponents of homeopathy often claim that heavily diluted solutions contain a “memory” of the active ingredients, but Gleason says that concept is ridiculous. As he explains, every molecule of water in our bodies has been enough other places — oceans, sewers, the bathtubs of ancient Greeks — to make any “memories” hopelessly jumbled.

In a 2010 report, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health, said that the key concepts of homeopathy “are not consistent with the established laws of science.”

Much of the controversy around homeopathy doesn’t really apply to Zicam RapidMelts, Gleason says, because the product actually contains significant amounts of its active ingredient. But he also notes that zinc isn’t exactly a silver bullet (or even a zinc bullet) against colds.


A 2000 study found that lozenges containing 13.3 mg. of zinc (about 3 mg. more than found in Zicam RapidMelts) cut the length of a cold by about one day but didn’t affect symptoms. Other studies have found no benefits at all. After reviewing 14 previous studies, Stanford researchers reported in 2007 that the effectiveness of zinc lozenges had “yet to be established.”

Taylor is planning to enroll 400 children in a placebo-controlled study of Cold ‘n Cough 4 Kids. The study will be funded by Hyland’s. “If homeopathy works, it would have to work on a different pathway than anything we know about,” he says. “But I’m open-minded about it.”

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