Is colloidal silver the virus-fighting remedy it claims to be?

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Many in the wellness world view colloidal silver as, well, something of a silver bullet, touting it as a treatment for colds, conjunctivitis, blisters, burns, and a plethora of other ailments. Recently, its proponents have added the novel coronavirus disease to this list. Televangelist Jim Bakker featured a guest on his show who hinted that colloidal silver could treat the disease, and others have also made COVID-19-related claims about the dietary supplement. But does colloidal silver have any health benefits, and, more importantly, is it safe?

Colloidal silver consists of flecks of silver suspended in a viscous liquid known as a colloid, Erin D. Michos, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, tells Mic. Although sold as a dietary supplement, silver “is not an essential nutrient,” like zinc or vitamin C, for which there are recommended daily intakes, she says. “You can’t be deficient in silver, because silver is not something your body needs.”

Michos suspects that claims about colloidal silver’s immune enhancing properties probably arose from the use of topical silver for burn wounds

Indeed, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health notes that ingesting silver has zero known benefits. “In fact, it can actually be dangerous,” Michos says. She explains that when it gets absorbed into the bloodstream, it can deposit into the skin and turn it bluish-gray, often irreversibly, a condition known as argyria, according to the NCCIH. Michos adds that it can also the prevent the body from absorbing certain medications. In rare cases, taking colloidal silver in excess can cause kidney damage and seizures, per the Mayo Clinic.

The gold standard for testing a proposed treatment is a randomized controlled trial, which assigns some participants to the treatment and others to a placebo, which accounts for factors other than the treatment that may affect the results. “I am not aware of any randomized controlled trials that have tested the efficacy and safety of silver,” Michos says.

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That includes randomized controlled trials on colloidal silver's ability to fight bacteria and viruses. “There are no scientific studies that actually back those health claims,” Michos tells Mic. And “there’s certainly no data on COVID.”

Unlike drug manufacturers, supplement manufacturers aren’t required to submit clinical trial data to the Food and Drug Administration before introducing their products to the market, she explains. But if their products are dangerous or falsely advertised — as, I don’t know, say, a way to prevent or treat COVID-19 — the FDA can pull them off the market. The agency has already issued warning letters to companies (including The Jim Bakker Show) that sell colloidal silver for making false claims about them related to COVID-19. In a statement, the FDA says it “has previously warned that colloidal silver is not safe or effective for treating any disease or condition.”

Michos suspects that claims about colloidal silver’s immune enhancing properties probably arose from the use of topical silver for burn wounds. Doctors apply what’s known as silver sulfadiazine cream to severe burns in order to prevent and treat infection, per the Mayo Clinic — but “this is totally different from colloidal silver,” Michos says.

What’s more, clinical trials have shown silver sulfadiazine’s safety and effectiveness in treating and preventing infections in severe burn wounds, earning it FDA approval, but for topical use. “It’s not intended for, or safe in, an oral form…. Just because something is used topically doesn’t mean it’s safe for ingestion.” Take hand sanitizer, for instance — "you wouldn’t want to ingest it.”

The take-home message: Don't take colloidal silver. Your body doesn't need it, and it hasn't been proven to prevent or treat COVID-19. In fact, it doesn't have any known health benefits, period. If anything, it can harm you.

For now, there’s no known treatment for COVID-19, Michos says. Until then, you can take steps to protect yourself from infection by following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for proper hand washing and social distancing. Tried-and-true measures to benefit immunity, such as eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and exercising, can also help. And be wary of companies that claim their supplements can prevent or cure any disease, including COVID-19. “People are scared, and they’re preying on the fears of people to make money," Michos says.