Some over the counter pills and sprays are homeopathic preparations (that is, some focal ingredient that has been diluted down to only a few molecules - or likely none at all), combined with other filler materials and usually some "vitamins or minerals". While labeled as homeopathic, as required by law, some folks simply overlook these details or fail to grasp what "homeopathic" really means.
I myself used one once - a free sample of Zicam I received as part of a complementary box of toiletries or some sort of product sampler I picked up somewhere (it was a while ago). So why did I try it despite my strong suspicion that it would have no impact on my symptoms? Simple - it's homeopathic! There's nothing in it but some pill-fill and vitamins! What's the harm!?
Well, as it turns out that question sometimes has some unexpected answers. There's actually a site called "What's the Harm?" that is chock full of the dangers of complementary and alternative medicines like homeopathic remedies, though it should be mentioned that anecdotal evidence is not nearly as compelling as the kind of evidence we can get from large well controlled studies or decent statistics based on reliable public health data.
Today, the FDA added more to the list: Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Gel, Gel Swabs, and Kids Size Swabs. According to reports, Zicam users may suffer anosmia - the inability to percieve smells. A quick google seach of "Zicam FDA" turns up plenty of news briefs on the matter.
So aren't these things regulated by the FDA?? Well, actually, they're hardly regulated like
[T]he FDA treats homeopathic remedies very differently from conventional medicines. Homeopathic products do not need FDA approval before sale; they do have to be proven safe per the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, and they do not have to prove efficacy. Homeopathic remedies do not have to be labeled with an expiration date, and they do not have to undergo finished product testing to verify contents and strength.Hmmm...
To be fair, the FDA doesn't have any smoking guns - just lots of suggestive anecdotal evidence. Right? Well, there's more to it than that. You see, unlike the shaky foundation of homeopathy, we do have some good science-based understanding of what may be going on here: Too much zinc exposure can reportedly damage nerve function in the nose.
For other details, the FDA press release can be found here, with more details here. For the another perspective, here's what the company website has to say about the matter:
Message to Consumers
June 16, 2009
Matrixx Initiatives confirms that it has received a warning letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about three of its 19 Zicam products, specifically Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Gel, Zicam Cold Remedy Swabs and Zicam Cold Remedy Swabs, Kids Size, based on allegations that their use could cause a temporary or permanent loss of smell, known as anosmia. Zicam Cold Remedy oral products were not included in the letter.
Matrixx Initiatives' primary concern is consumer saftey. Based on the FDA's action, the company has suspended shipments of these products and will reimburse any customer desiring a refund.
However, the company believes the cumulative body of independent scientific and medical evidence supports both the safety and efficacy of Zicam intranasal cold remedy products. Matrixx Initiatives stands behind the science of its products and its belief that there is no causal link between its intranasal gel products and anosmia. For this reason, Matrixx Initiatives believes that the FDA action is unwarranted and will seek a meeting with the FDA to review the company's product safety data.