RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—With most people anxious about swine flu right now, it's easy to forget that cold season is nigh upon us. In terms of sheer numbers, many more of us are at risk of colds than will ever get the flu, with one billion colds afflicting Americans every year. Cold "season" takes up practically the entire year, starting in late August and lasting until April or May, which means that hawkers of cold medicines and treatments have a lot of time to profit from your misery. But should you be spending your money in the medicine aisle, or on economy-sized bottles of hand soap?
Pros: Zinc is one natural cold remedy out of many that's garnering a good deal of market share; one brand of zinc-based nasal sprays, Zicam, has become the third best-selling cold remedy on store shelves. The belief is that zinc helps the immune system combat viruses, but the exact mechanism of how it works is unknown.
Cons: There's little evidence that zinc actually does anything, and you could be putting your sense of smell at risk if you prefer your zinc in spray or gel form. The Food and Drug Administration recalled three Zicam products—adult and kids'-size Zicam Cold Remedy Swabs and Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Gel—in June after more than 100 people reported losing their sense of smell after using the products (zinc taken orally in tablet form hasn't been found to carry any similar risks). And the 14 scientific studies that have been done on zinc haven't found that it's any more effective at treating or preventing colds than a placebo.