Is silver safe as a medicine?


Effects of colloidal silverThe short answer to that headline question – based on everything I’ve read of late – is no. It’s not that silver has no medical uses – one form has been used in dressings and bandages as an antiseptic (not, as is sometimes claimed, an antibiotic). Silver nitrate is sometimes used to treat warts and corns.

However, the benefits and long-term risks of silver in any form – especially an ingested form – have been not been fully researched.

It’s not that colloidal silver – an entirely different product from topical silver – may not have health-related benefits. It’s just that we don’t really know because there is no solid, peer-reviewed research to back up any of the claims. And those claims make it nothing short of miraculous. Quackwatch lists AIDS, chronic fatigue, herpes, TB, syphilis, lupus, malaria, plague, acne, impetigo, and Lyme disease among the diseases sellers claim their colloidal silver will cure. Others include “Common cold, stomach ulcers, acne, burns, shingles, arthritis, strep, tuberculosis,” fungus, bacteria, polio and cancer.

A 2013 study found colloidal silver (silver ions) improved the efficiency of antibiotics. But the study’s authors warned that this was just a preliminary effort:

Before adding silver to antibiotics, “we’ll have to address the toxicity very carefully”, says Fowler. Ingesting too much silver can also cause argyria, a condition in which the skin turns a blue-grey colour — and the effect is permanent.

Collins says that he and his colleagues saw good results in mice using non-toxic amounts of silver. But, he adds, there are ways to reduce the risk even further. “We’re also encouraging people to look at what features of silver caused the helpful effects, so they can look for non-toxic versions,” he says,

Silver is used in water purification: “The World Health Organization includes silver in a colloidal state produced by electrolysis of silver electrodes in water, and colloidal silver in water filters as two of a number of water disinfection methods specified to provide safe drinking water in developing countries.” That doesn’t mean that it’s safe to drink the stuff from a bottle.

Rosemary JacobsArgyria is an irreversible effect that comes from ingesting too much silver. It turns your skin cyanotic: blue-ish; from the bright blue face at the top of this post to the slate-grey face of Rosemary Jacobs shown here. Jacobs was given colloidal silver by her doctors and ended up with her discoloured skin. her story is tragic but illustrative – and a lot more real than the anonymous “testimonials” on many of the sellers’ sites.

My caution is mostly because of the charlatans in the alternative-health industry and how they promote their products.

Without considerable effort and research on the part of the consumer, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to determine which product is actually what it claims and is safe. My spidey-sense warns me that if it’s so hard to be sure, it’s best to avoid the product entirely.

Far, far too many of the sites that claim research or proof of colloidal silver’s efficacy as a cure point back to one another site that promotes colloidal silver – usually companies or individuals selling related products. Talk about a conflict of interest! Their “testimonials” are often unsubstantiated and anonymous. As Science-Based Medicine notes;

What perpetuates the use of colloidal silver are testimonials, like the nurse who suggested silver to prevent H1N1. The interwebs are filled with unsubstantiated testimonials, for common infections and unusual infections, with one gentleman crediting colloidal silver, rather than the vancomycin and gentamyin, for the cure of his subdural empyema (pus between the brain and skull).

Far too little of that “proof” is backed by solid documentation from an appropriate number of randomized-controlled trials (RCTs). And to compound that, what little documentation I’ve found often refers to results from in vitro studies, not in vivo. Even then the cautious claims made in the limited, small-scale research reports are often turned into hyperbolic “proof” by those marketing their goods. Like this study that said (emphasis added):

The results of this study strongly suggestsuggests that there are several beneficial mechanisms of action at work… suggest the possibility that stem cell activation is being produced… suggest that Silver Sol can help improve healing times… Silver Sol could be the
health vector that helps reduce the health risk…

Which suggests to me that potential benefits may be present, but that further study – a lot more study – is required before any solid claim for proof can be made. Any medicinal or  health-related benefit found from topical uses do not imply the same benefits will result from ingestion.

The claims made on some sites that ancient folk knew the antibiotic effect of silver is simply codswallop. Healthwyze.org (the inability to spell healthwise properly should warn readers away…) reports:

Two thousand, three hundred years ago, Alexander The Great was surveying his battlefield and drinking water from silver urns. He knew nothing about bacteria, but he knew that silver containers have a seemingly miraculous way of keeping water fresh. Silver has been used for thousands of years in different forms for its health benefits. Throughout the middle ages, the wealthy gave their children silver spoons to suck upon to stave off illnesses. People have known about the benefits of silver for so long that it is incorporated into legends. Silver is the recommended agent for killing vampires, werewolves, and various forms of the so-called undead. According to ancient legend, a silver dagger was all that a knight needed to vanquish evil.

Which is a whole paragraph of post hoc fallacies and claptrap. We have no idea what Alexander used for his drinking mugs, or what he thought about water. Silver spoons? The term “born with a silver spoon in his mouth” is first recorded in 1801; it’s not from the Middle Ages. Spoons in the Middle Ages were as commonly made of brass or bronze. And Christening spoons were put in babies’ mouths because they had a picture of Christ on them, which itself was considered to ward off evil and ailment regardless of the metal. Silver was historically used to show off one’s wealth, not one’s health.

There is no statistical evidence that silver had any beneficial effect to ward off disease – or the Black Death, as is sometimes claimed. And the nonsense about werewolves and vampires is too ludicrous to deserve comment – except to point out the association with them and silver is a 20th century fiction, not ancient lore. An ancient legend? An unsubstantiated claim like that should embarrass the author. This sort of nonsense is what helps perpetuate the misinformation and disinformation about silver.

Silver has been credited with antiseptic properties for at least 70 years. However, online colloidal silver is being promoted as an ancient “alternative medicine” – which usually translates as “snake oil.” Wild and unrealistic claims are made about its ability to cure a staggering variety of illnesses and ailments, including, as this site claims, “Candida, Lyme Disease, Morgellons, MRSA and E. coli.”

Yes, Morgellons: the delusional belief that people are infected by fibres (or creatures/parasites), often claimed by quacks and hoaxers as originating from chemtrails – itself another delusion. Morgellons are a particularly loony conspiracy theory that has spread among the tin-foil-hat brigade and is warmly embraced by a wide variety of wingnuts and opportunistic predators looking to make a profit from the hard-of-thinking.

Claiming to cure an imaginary ailment really has to make you cautious about the other claims. If colloidal silver cures morgellons, it musty be equally effective on invisible pink unicorns.

One site claims their colloidal silver will cure  “Ebola, Dengue Fever,  Malaria, SARS, West Nile, Hepatitis C, mycoplasma, Mutated Colds, Virulent Flu, Aids, Lyme Disease, Eczema, Yeast Infections, Common Colds, Flu…”  as well as denouncing other sellers as liars.

Many of the claims made for collodial silver are based on claims made for “silver sulfadiazine, aka silvadene,” a topical antiseptic. And many of those claims are based on a poorly-documented and unsupported 1976 story – not a peer-reviewed article or research paper – from Science Digest magazine.

And, of course, if it’s good for humans, it must be good for pets, right? Well, at least this site says so (and is wrong about colloidal silver being clear, so I discount the rest of the “information” there).

After doing some research over a few days, I came to the conclusion that colloidal silver is often not the product it is advertised to be, and consumers need to be very cautious about claims and products. Claims about content and concentration often vary wildly, as much as the claims for what the product cures.

Let me start with a rather lengthy quote from Wikipedia (emphasis added):

Since about 1990, there has been a resurgence of the promotion of colloidal silver as a dietary supplement or homeopathic remedy, marketed with claims of it being an essential mineral supplement, or that it can prevent or treat numerous diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, herpes, and tuberculosis. No medical evidence supports the effectiveness of colloidal silver for any of these claimed indications.
Silver is not an essential mineral in humans; there is no dietary requirement for silver, and no such thing as a silver “deficiency”.
There is no evidence that colloidal silver treats or prevents any medical condition, and it can cause serious and potentially irreversible side effects such as argyria.
In August 1999, the U.S. FDA banned colloidal silver sellers from claiming any therapeutic or preventive value for the product, although silver-containing products continue to be promoted as dietary supplements in the U.S. under the looser regulatory standards applied to supplements.
The FDA has issued numerous Warning Letters to Internet sites that have continued to promote colloidal silver as an antibiotic or for other medical purposes. Despite the efforts of the FDA, silver products remain widely available on the market today. A review of websites promoting nasal sprays containing colloidal silver suggested that information about silver-containing nasal sprays on the internet is misleading and inaccurate.

In 2002, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) found there were no legitimate medical uses for colloidal silver and no evidence to support its marketing claims.
The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) warns that marketing claims about colloidal silver are scientifically unsupported, that the silver content of marketed supplements varies widely, and that colloidal silver products can have serious side effects such as argyria.

In 2009, the USFDA issued a “Consumer Advisory” warning about the potential adverse effects of colloidal silver, and said that “…there are no legally marketed prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) drugs containing silver that are taken by mouth.”
Quackwatch states that colloidal silver dietary supplements have not been found safe or effective for the treatment of any condition. Consumer Reports lists colloidal silver as a “supplement to avoid”, describing it as “likely unsafe”. The Los Angeles Times stated that “colloidal silver as a cure-all is a fraud with a long history, with quacks claiming it could cure cancer, AIDS, tuberculosis, diabetes and numerous other diseases.

According to the site, Silver-colloids.com,

There are three distinctly different types of silver that are labeled and sold on the market as “colloidal silver”; they are ionic silver, silver protein, and true colloidal silver. Consumers seeking true colloidal silver are often at a disadvantage because each of these products represents themselves as colloidal silver.

Some less-than-scrupulous manufacturers misrepresent their products and offer potentially dangerous or at least ineffective products. According to the lab results shown on the page, some of the products are so low in silver (less than 2% of what is claimed ion the label) as to be considered “Homeopathic” (i.e. bogus). Here’s a digest of some of the information on Silver-colloids.com (emphasis added):

Ionic Silver Solutions
The vast majority of products labeled and sold as colloidal silver fall into this category due to the low degree of manufacturing complexity and resulting low cost of production… Companies that sell ionic silver claim that their product is “true colloidal silver” in an attempt to confuse the buyer. Do not be fooled. If the product is clear, then it is ionic silver, not a true silver colloid
The term colloidal means particles not ions, but producers of ionic silver products will try to convince the buyer that their product is a silver colloid. The common thread in most advertisements selling ionic silver products (labeled as colloidal silver) is to claim that ions are silver particles, or they try to blur the distinction by using the terms interchangeably.
Ionic silver products which have a low silver concentration while at the same time have high electrical conductivity will generally have a low pH value (acidic). These products will quite often be found to have a high nitrate (NO3) concentration as well. This unique set of properties generally indicates that the process used to produce the product involves arcing a high voltage AC current through the air to the surface of the water. Since air is 80% nitrogen, the high voltage arc through nitrogen produces nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which combines with the water (H2O) to form nitric acid (HNO3). This method is considered bogus in the extreme and produces a product that may contain significant amounts of nitric acid and is therefore potentially very dangerous to ingest.

Silver Protein (a/k/a Mild Silver Protein)
Silver protein products are the second most prevalent type of so-called colloidal silver products on the market. These products consist of a combination of metallic silver particles and a protein binder, and can easily be produced by simply adding water to silver protein powder sold by various chemical companies.
Most products claiming to be high concentrations of colloidal silver (typically in the range of 30 to 20,000 ppm) are in fact silver protein colloids.
Of the three types of colloidal silver, silver protein products have the lowest particle surface area for a given silver concentration , making the silver inaccessible for safe human absorption and less effective for human use.
Due to the high concentration of large silver particles, silver protein products are known to cause argyria, a condition that causes the skin to turn blue-gray.

True Colloidal Silver
True colloidal silver products are the least prevalent type of colloidal silver on the market due to high degree of manufacturing complexity and the resulting high cost of production.
In true colloidal silver, the majority of the silver content is in the form of silver particles.
The two critical factors to look for in determining true colloids are the percentage of silver particles and the particle surface area.
Because of the high concentration of silver particles, true silver colloids are never clear like water. True colloidal silver with a sufficient concentration of particles does not look like water because silver particles — even very small particles — block light from passing through, making the liquid appear darker.

Yet the NIH warns readers that all silver products are potentially dangerous (emphasis added):

Scientific evidence does not support the use of colloidal silver to treat any disease, and serious, irreversible side effects can result from its use. Colloidal silver products are often marketed as dietary supplements with various unproven health-related claims… The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission have taken action against a number of companies (including some companies that sell products over the Internet) for making drug-like claims about colloidal silver products… Claims made about the effectiveness of colloidal silver for numerous diseases are unsupported scientifically.

and…

There is no scientific evidence for effectiveness and a severe risk for serious side effects from colloidal silver. The FDA does not consider colloidal silver to be safe or effective for treating any disease or condition and has issued an advisory regarding its safety.
Complementary products or practices that have not been proven safe and effective, such as colloidal silver, should never be used as a replacement for conventional medical care or as a reason to postpone seeing a health care provider about a medical problem.

Quackwatch calls colloidal silver “risk without the benefits.” The Mayo Clinic says, “Colloidal silver isn’t 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.”

It’s not clear how much colloidal silver may be harmful, but it can build up in your body’s tissues over months or years. Most commonly, this results in argyria (ahr-JIR-e-uh), a blue-gray discoloration of your skin, eyes, internal organs, nails and gums. While argyria doesn’t pose a serious health problem, it can be a cosmetic concern because it doesn’t go away when you stop taking silver products.

Rarely, excessive doses of colloidal silver can cause possibly irreversible serious health problems, including kidney damage and neurological problems such as seizures. Colloidal silver products may also interact with medications, including penicillamine, quinolone, tetracycline and thyroxine medications.

The Harvard Medical School notes, “…there’s no proof that taking colloidal silver by mouth has any benefits. As for harm, brain and nerve damage from silver exposure is rare, but colloidal silver can cause kidney damage, stomach distress, and headaches.”

A good article in the Sydney Morning Herald called the claims for colloidal silver “pretty vacuous”:

It’s a textbook exercise in pseudoscience. Step 1: Take a grain of truth – silver can kill bacteria. Step 2: Wildly extrapolate on that grain of truth, convincing yourself – without any evidence whatsoever – that silver can therefore cure pretty much any disease known to humanity. Step 3: Profit by selling silver-containing potions that you claim can cure everything from cancer and HIV to herpes, malaria and athlete’s foot.
The fact that silver (or any other substance) can kill bacteria in a test tube doesn’t mean that drinking it will cure or prevent disease. It doesn’t mean that it’s safe, either – silver is toxic in high enough doses, and taking it for extended periods can irreversibly turn your skin blue. Yes, really.

The Australian Department of Health doesn’t approve any colloidal silver products in that country, and noted:

Following an investigation by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the CMEC recommended that the NDPSC be advised that there are no current legitimate uses of colloidal silver and that the Surveillance Section of the TGA be requested to investigate the illegal availability of colloidal silver products because of concerns about their significant toxicity. The reasons for the recommendation were that:

    • there is little evidence to support therapeutic claims made for colloidal silver products;
    • the risk to consumers of silver toxicity outweighs the value of trying an unsubstantiated treatment, and bacterial resistance to silver can occur; and
    • efforts should be made to curb the illegal availability of colloidal silver products, which is a significant public health issue.

Ongoing concerns over the safety of colloidal silver led the CMEC to recommend that action be taken by the TGA in regard to the safety risk posed by illegal or potentially illegal products containing colloidal silver.

I’ll side with the doctors, the medical experts and the researchers on this rather than the hucksters trying to make a buck off my gullibility. There may be a safe medical use for colloidal silver in the future, but it will come after prolonged and peer-reviewed research. Until then, I call it snake oil and stay away from it.