My Turn: Danger with zinc-based inhalers

Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I recently purchased a zinc-based inhaler with sinus relief medication from one of our local merchants. It was located on the shelf in between the Food and Drug Administration approved over-the-counter medications. However, I learned the hard way that it is not.

The medicine is considered homeopathic, and thus has not been tested by the FDA. I did not realize this when I bought it, and after using just one dose of it, I have lost my sense of taste and smell completely.

I used the product according to the directions, experienced an intense burning sensation, and then felt great - until I realized I could not taste my dinner or smell anything around me. I re-read the pamphlet, and after seeing no reference to this as a possible side-effect, I went online.

Online I found thousands of postings of other people dealing with this anosmia. In fact, the makers of the medication settled a class-action lawsuit for $12 million in January 2006 for this very thing. As part of the settlement, however, they did not have to acknowledge a product defect or pull the product off of the shelves. It is still being sold and marketed with barely any mention that it is homeopathic and "take at your own risk."

The orange packages of a cold medicine from the same company do say "homeopathic" on the bottom right-hand corner of the box in fine print, but the sinus medication does not. And neither one list anosmia - temporary or permanent - as a possible side effect, even after paying out a huge settlement for it.

Some of the poor victims of this experienced such intense burning and stinging for hours that they could not function and ended up in the emergency room. These people had so much scar tissue in their sinus cavities (verified on follow up CT scans), that they permanently lost their olfactory senses.

A family friend who works as a transcriptionist for a neurologist in Eugene, Ore., e-mailed me that they are seeing many of these cases, and the average window of wait for those that have their smell return is eight months.

For those of you who are thinking, "Well, I've used it several times and not had a reaction," so did many of those who suddenly did have a reaction.

This news about zinc-based inhalers is not new. Way back in 1936, doctors used a similar zinc inhaler as a possible cure for polio. What they found was that it did not work on polio, and their test patients were losing their sense of smell in the process. Now it's back, but it's just as dangerous as ever, and rather than being in the research process, it's back on the shelf at your friendly grocer and drugstore.

I have contacted the FDA and sent out numerous e-mails to warn as many people as possible of what happened. Please do the same and pass the word to all you know. This, unfortunately, is not an urban legend. This product does not have any place on the shelves, at the stores, nor does it in your medicine cabinet.

• Hillary Reynolds is a Juneau resident.

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