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Is Colloidal Silver Helpful or Harmful?

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Colloidal silver has been around for eons. But it's gaining in popularity again, despite health warnings. temmuzcan/Getty Images

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Sometimes it's easy to tease out whether a much-hyped wellness regimen is more likely to be helpful or harmful. Looking to kick off a healthy eating plan? Maybe a whole foods-based diet is worth a shot. Hoping to curb anxiety? Hey, why not try mindfulness? Thinking a celebrity-endorsed diet pill will solve all your problems? Might want to rethink that one.

See? Simple! But sometimes it's a lot harder to discern if certain supplements and strategies purported to boost your health will improve your overall well-being or actually take a serious toll on it. Case in point: colloidal silver.

Typically marketed as an oral dietary supplement (though it also comes in topical and injectable formulations), colloidal silver is a suspension of tiny silver particles in liquid. While silver is commonly used as an antimicrobial agent in drugs and wound dressings, advocates of colloidal silver claim the solution has been used for centuries to treat everything from pneumonia and flu to skin rashes and even cancer.

Helpful?

"Silver has been used for thousands of years for its antimicrobial properties," says New York-city-based integrative medicine nurse practitioner and life coach, Victoria Albina, FNP-c, MPH. "It's commonly used in hospitals, and NASA uses it to disinfect water on the space station."

While NASA does use silver in the potable water system of its International Space Station, the agency acknowledges that "recent studies have shown the possible toxicity of colloidal silver to humans," and "researchers are currently developing and testing a simple technique that will enable crew members to test silver levels in the water system in less than two minutes."

NASA isn't the only agency to take major issue with the supplement. In 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated, over-the-counter drug products containing colloidal silver ingredients or silver salts for internal or external use are not generally recognized as safe and effective and are misbranded. The FDA — and the Federal Trade Commission — have even gone as far as taking action against some colloidal silver manufacturers for making unfounded health claims. And the Mayo Clinic suggest colloidal silver "isn't considered safe or effective for any of the health claims manufacturers make."

But despite the claims, health care providers continue to integrate colloidal silver into their toolkits. "In my practice, I use silver in the hydrosol form, and I use it sparingly," Albina says. "You have to be very careful to make sure you're using a very good quality form." Albina says that if she does choose to treat a patient with silver, she uses Sovereign Silver, which has been producing and distributing products in the U.S. since 1999.

Or Harmful?

"Colloidal silver is not something I recommend for my patients," says naturopathic doctor, nurse practitioner, and founder of Seven Senses Integrative Medicine and Holistic Coaching, Erica Matluck. "Patients have come to me complaining of skin discoloration after using over-the-counter colloidal silver products for antimicrobial purposes."

Matluck's patients aren't alone: One common known side effect of the supplement is argyria, a buildup of silver in the body's tissue that can cause skin to take on a bluish-gray tint. But that's not the worst possible outcome — although rare, health problems like kidney damage and neurological problems including seizures have also occurred as a result of excessive colloidal silver doses.

"Colloidal silver is sometimes recommended for its antibacterial properties, but unfortunately the scientific evidence is lacking," says Washington D.C.-based family medicine physician, Shilpi Agarwal, M.D. "The FDA has deemed it likely unsafe and it is hard to know what you are actually get in terms of percentage, potency, etc., because there are no regulations. I would avoid it."

Depending on the ailment she's trying to treat, Matluck says she relies on other pharmaceutical alternatives for issues like upper respiratory infections or infected skin wounds. "In my experience, there are plenty of nonpharmacologic antimicrobial agents that are safer and more effective than colloidal silver," she says. "It really depends what you are treating, but garlic, oregano oil, and berberine are all potent options."

The bottom line: there are no one-size-fits-all magic (silver) bullets that heal every ailment in every person. Read up on all the government warnings, know the potential risks of any medication or supplement you use, and work with a health care provider you trust.

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