Here we have a story with lots of facts, but not a coherent message to consumers about whether zinc lozenges are of any benefit
in shortening cold symptoms. The title and early comments suggest this single retrospective review of existing research gives evidence that larger doses of zinc are effective, but the author of the study says more research is needed. The story’s own independent voice says this is not conclusive at all. Consumers are left without the context to evaluate this latest report.
One researcher estimates that Americans spend about $40 billion per year on both over-the-counter treatments and visits to the doctor for the common cold. No wonder that any new publication should gain wide attention, but the new study (examining old studies) concluded “The effects of zinc lozenges should be further studied to determine the optimal lozenge compositions…” This story shortchanges the consumer by presenting information without much context. It exaggerates the evidence and implies that zinc is an answer.
The story does not mention cost. But zinc lozenges are not expensive, costing perhaps $5 – $10 for a course of treatment.
The story gives us many figures, but it may not reveal enough for a consumer to gain much insight on benefits. It says that some clinical trials comparing zinc acetate lozenges to placebo reduced the duration of colds by an average of 42 percent. But other trials, considered by the author of the research article, used zinc salts (not acetate) at a different dosage, and got results more like 20 percent. The story gives information on the duration of a cold in aggregate and in relative but not not absolute terms. Consumers are left without critical details. It could have explained 42% of what? A week?
The story suggests that, “No prior studies showed zinc lozenge use — even up to 150 mg per day — might cause harm aside from bad taste or constipation” We give it a pass since it does note the major side effects seen.
The tone of this story – if reported at all – should have been that a few small studies were analyzed in an area where there have been many questions about effectiveness in the past. Indeed, the story quotes expert Lisa Winston saying “I don’t think the evidence is strong enough… that we can base clinical practice on it.” Great use of an expert to get context, but why not write the whole story to reflect this context? One could have stressed, higher up in the story, that the results are intriguing but not conclusive and based on small sets of patients.
Instead, “may shorten colds” is in the headline. “Still no cure…but there may be a way to shorten misery” in the lede. The story took on a cheerleading tone from the outset where it did not appear warranted.
The story says there’s no “cure” for the common cold “but there may be a way to shorten its misery.” Yet it doesn’t discuss the fact that most colds for most people are self-limiting and of short duration. And what is the average duration of this “misery”?
The story quotes the author of the original journal article and one expert. Neither of these appear to have conflicts of interest.
The story does not talk about existing strategies to relieve cold symptoms, and so, does not satisfactorily place the new research into context. A quick look at the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases website includes these: resting in bed, drinking plenty of fluids, gargling with warm salt water, using a decongestant or saline nasal spray, among others.
The story mentioned the “popularity of zinc supplements” but never established how popular, widespread are their use and never explained if the lozenges on market shelves are at the same dosages as discussed in the story.
We can’t give it a satisfactory score; we’ll rule it N/A.
There is nothing novel about zinc lozenges as an over-the-counter aid for cold symptoms. The story is about research reviewing previously published articles on the use of zinc lozenges.
The story does not rely solely on a news release.