Is Homeopathy Safe?

By Vicky Uhland

For centuries, people around the world have used homeopathy to treat everything from seasickness to cancer. But this summer’s recall of Zicam, a popular homeopathic nasal cold remedy containing zinc, raised questions about the safety of this somewhat mysterious science.

Homeopathy uses natural substances from plants, minerals, or animals to ward off disease, operating under the principle “like cures like.” For example, if you’re suffering stomach woes, taking a tincture containing a tiny amount of arsenic—which upsets the stomach—can trigger your immune system to fight the illness. The theory is that a scary-sounding substance like arsenic helps rather than harms you because it’s diluted to miniscule potencies.

But when the FDA reported that more than 130 people lost their sense of smell after using Zicam, the recall sparked a flurry of articles questioning not only homeopathy’s effectiveness, but also its safety. Zicam execs have appealed to the FDA to reverse its decision, citing four studies showing that the zinc used in Zicam does not affect smell—and that scientists have found that simply having a cold can cause permanent loss of smell. Either way, some homeopaths argue that the zinc in Zicam isn’t diluted enough for the treatment to even be considered homeopathic.

The European Council for Classical Homeopathy took on the safety issue by reviewing 28 international studies published since 1995. Of more than 8,000 study participants, none had a serious adverse reaction (defined as life threatening, disabling, causing hospitalization, or creating birth defects) from any homeopathic treatment. And an American Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists study found that reports of any kind of adverse reaction—even a simple headache—from homeopathic remedies were on par with those from popping vitamin or mineral pills. More people reported complications from taking over-the-counter medicines for asthma, colds, or pain relief than they did from homeopathic remedies.

Practitioners point out that the FDA regulates homeopathy the same way it does pharmaceuticals, meaning homeopathic medicines are subject to more stringent formulation and labeling laws than supplements. Sounds like we should keep the arnica on hand after all.