Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Colloidal Silver

A friend of mine recently suggest colloidal silver nasal spray to help with sinus infections. He swears by it; I think the phrase was, "It's given me my life back." Now, I have a lot of allergy trouble. Part of this - most of this - has to do with living in Dallas. Not only is Dallas a sort of black hole for allergens (they all seem to come here, and they never leave), but there's also plenty of pollution to reinforce the irritation.

(I'd move, gladly, except that I have a very good job here; both my parents and my wife's parents live nearby, as do my brother and his wife; and I'm really not enthused about searching for another martial arts school. And there are things I like about living here; there's almost always something going on. Anyway, back to colloidal silver.)

So, colloidal silver sounded pretty good. I'm generally dubious about homeopathic remedies, and the sorts of things that get marketed as 'dietary supplements', but I figured this was worth looking into. And by 'looking into', I mean that I starting looking things up and doing some research, not that I bought a bottle and tried it.

What I found was, frankly, worrisome. First of all, the advertising on this is highly misleading. Most of the claims made on websites are dubious if not completely false, and quite a few are probably illegal. (An article for the Ear Nose and Throat journal has examples. You'll have to register in order to read the whole thing, but go ahead. It's free, and you can use a pseudonym.) From the article:

Colloidal silver products are often marketed with unproven health-related claims, such as products benefiting the immune system; killing disease-causing agents such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi; being an alternative to prescription antibiotics; or treating diseases such as cancer and human immunodeficiency virus.

In a recent study of Internet marketing of the most common herbal remedies, Morris and Avorn discovered that, despite FDA regulations on the health claims of herbal products, 55% of herbal medication Web sites made claims to treat, prevent, diagnose, or cure specific diseases.

The FDA has regulations against making these claims because there's no clinical evidence to support them. Let me repeat that: there is no clinical evidence to support the claims that colloidal silver is effective. That's not to say that it never works, or that silver has no medical uses. It does, and there's a whole wikipedia article on the topic. But there's no scientific evidence that taking it internally does anything to fight disease, cure infections, or improve health. (And, by the way, if you're spraying the stuff on your mucus membranes, you're taking it internally.) Here's an article from the LA Times on the topic; be sure to read both pages, since the money quote is on the second page:
"Those studies haven't been done," says Pribitkin, who co-wrote a 2008 article
on silver nasal sprays and colloidal silver published in the Ear, Nose and
Throat Journal. In his view, just because something kills germs on contact
doesn't mean it will fight infections inside the body. He notes that sulfuric
acid kills germs too, but nobody touts it as a health tonic.
The other issue is that taking silver can have side effects. The main side effect is argyria, a condition in which the skin, tissues, and organs acquire a blue or grey coloration. This is generally considered 'disfiguring' rather than dangerous, but take note: it's permanent. The body doesn't filter or excrete the silver particles on its own, at least not in enough quantity to make a difference. Rosemary Jacobs (born in 1942) turned silver as a result of argyria somewhere around age fourteen; she is still alive today, and despite an attempt at dermabrasion, still noticeably discolored. Take a look at the pictures on her site, and read her story. She's firmly of the opinion that the people marketing colloidal silver are just a new generation of snake-oil salesmen.

The wikipedia article says that "laser therapy has been used to treat [argyria] with satisfactory cosmetic results," but that doesn't strike me as terribly encouraging.

Now, let's review the part where the human body doesn't effectively filter or excrete silver particles on its own. That means that it isn't a question of whether you take too much at any one time; it's a question of the total amount you've ever taken in. Rosemary Jacobs (linked above) acquired her condition using nasal drops "intermittently, as needed" from age eleven to age fourteen. That's a small intake, accumulating over time. Now, let me add an additional consideration. These products are not medicines. That means that they are not held to the same standards of quality control that actual pharmaceuticals are. And that means that the dosage may or may not be quite what the packaging says it is.

One final word of warning, from the The Annals of Occupational Hygiene:
Besides argyria and argyrosis, exposure to soluble silver compounds may produce
other toxic effects, including liver and kidney damage, irritation of the eyes,
skin, respiratory, and intestinal tract, and changes in blood cells.
Is colloidal silver an effective remedy? Hard to say, but the current research does not support the claims being made by its marketers. Is it a safe, natural remedy? Well, 'natural' doesn't mean much; arsenic is natural, too. Silver is, at least, non-toxic. And, yes: in small doses, over the short term, colloidal silver is fairly safe. (Apparently there are people who actually have silver allergies, but hopefully they already know better than to use something called "colloidal silver".) In larger doses, and/or over a longer term, there are some rather noteworthy risks and side effects.

Be warned. As a likely risk/likely benefit analysis, colloidal silver looks like a very bad bet.

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