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Colloidal silver, a potentially dangerous waste of money for disease treatment

Thomas Secrest's picture
The promise of alternative medicine (photo by Thomas Secrest)

Silver (particles of Ag) is one of those products that stands with one foot firmly rooted in science and one foot on a banana peel. It is a compound that is not highly regulated, when purchased wholesale it is relatively cheap and it can be repackaged and sold at a very nice profit. These are the three critical fronts of the perfect storm we call alternative medicine.

The history of silver compounds (mainly silver sulfadiazine and silver nitrates) goes back to the times of Hippocrates (460 -370 BC); however, its use was largely discontinued when new more powerful antimicrobials were discovered starting around the middle of the 20th century. Lately there has been a nostalgic resurgence in its popularly. Is the resurgence justified? Yes, in part.

What is the general consensus today?

Let’s cut right to the bone – the Mayo Clinic states that “Colloidal silver is not considered safe or effective for any of the health claims manufacturers make. Silver has no known purpose in the body. Nor is it an essential mineral, as some sellers of silver products claim.”

You can’t get much more to the point than that.

Aren’t there studies that support the use of silver?

Yes, and therein lies the rub. Science has found highly specific uses for silver, and the statement above does not refer to these medical uses. Under very specific conditions, silver can be a useful tool in a physician’s toolbox. However, it is not a compound that should be routinely rubbed on your skin, squirted up your nose, sucked into your lungs or ingested as pills, which is often what is recommended. A recent study in the April, 2013 issue of Wounds, by Finley et al., described how silver has been used effectively, often in conjunction with other medicines and how they were concerned that we might be seeing the start of microbial resistance to silver, just like with other antibiotics. The conclusion of their research was that while no resistance is present as this time, vigilance is still needed.

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If bacteria can develop resistance to silver, then the routine use of this product as an alternative medicine jeopardizes its future effectiveness.

In the June 13, 2013 issue of the journal Science Transitional Medicine, Jose Ruben Morones-Ramirez of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Boston University said that his work showed that “silver can be used to enhance the action of existing antibiotics against Gram-negative bacteria, thus strengthening the antibiotic arsenal for fighting bacterial infections."

The study found that the effectiveness of antibiotics, supplemented with silver, were up to 1000 times more effective in treating infections in mice, than the antibiotic alone.

In each of the above studies the authors stress silver as an adjunct treatment and not a stand-alone treatment. Medically it is intended to be used short term, not as a daily prophylactic.

Can silver be dangerous if taken regularly as a health supplement?

The answer is a definitive 'who knows?' There are examples of adverse silver events. The best known is argyria. Argyria results in a permanent bluish coloration of the skin caused by silver deposits in the dermis. When it is the result of local applications of silver containing creams, the discoloration is localized. If it results from oral consumption of silver, the discoloration is more widespread. Silver, like many heavy metals, is not easily eliminated from the body and tends to accumulate over time. Silver ions are photo-reactive and change color when exposed to sunlight, which is what causes the blue discoloration of the skin.

Additionally, silver as an antimicrobial is very non-specific. It appears to target proteins with thiol groups (S-H groups). Most proteins have thiol groups; silver doesn’t discriminate between bacterial proteins and human proteins. This means that silver, could in theory, do low-level damage to human proteins when it is consumed or applied every day. Fortunately, the amount of silver in silver alternative medicines is low compared to the amounts used in medical treatments. However, silver does accumulate, so that over time, the potential risks could go up.

In parting, don’t forget that much of the marketing around alternative medicines is about fear, legal but outrageous health claims, high profit margins and regular use of the product. In many ways alternative medicine is a form of long-term human pharmacological trails, but without any of the controls or regulations.

Many alternative health products are trying to sell you the idea that you need to consume or use their product daily to 'be healthy' and 'stay healthy;' if you don't use them daily, the company that sells them goes out of business, therefore, they are highly motivated to use every trick in the book to keep you consuming and using their products. Ultimately it is up to you to decide, but before you do, ask a doctor you trust, if they would use the product, as directed, on themselves or their family; then make your decision.