Colloidal Silver: Miracle Elixir or Plague of the Living Dead?
If someone told you that they were in possession of something that could cure any illness almost instantaneously, would you believe it? If you were told that there was a small risk of permanently changing the color of your skin, would you be willing to run the risk and take it anyway? The name of this elixir is colloidal silver, and it is concocted by suspending microscopic silver particles in liquid. Colloidal silver has been claimed to be effective against hundreds of conditions and diseases, including cancer, AIDS, parasites, acne, enlarged prostate, pneumonia, and a myriad of others. However, long-term use of this silver can lead to a conditional called argyria, where a buildup of silver salt deposit on the eyes, skin, and internal oranges change the skin permanently metallic ashen-gray, making the individual have permanent death pallor. Does colloidal silver really carry the medicinal cure-all properties it is claimed to have, or is it just risk without benefit?
Silver has been used for hundreds of years as both a medicine and preservative by many cultures around the world. The Greeks used silver vessels to help keep water and other liquids fresh. Pioneers put silver coins in the wooden water casks to keep the water free from the growth of bacteria, algae, and other organisms, and placed silver dollars in milk to keep it fresh. In 1901, a Prussian chemist named Hille and Albert Barnes discovered a method of preparing a true colloid by combining a vegetable product with a silver compound and patented it as Argyrol, the only non-toxic antibiotic available at the time. Another scientist, Crede, advocated the use of colloidal silver to fight bacterial infections because colloidal silver is non-toxic and it carries germicidal properties and through his work introduced colloidal silver into medicine (1). The colloidal state proved to be the most effective means to fight infections because it demonstrated a high level of activity with very low concentrations, and also because it lacked the caustic properties of salt. By the mid 1930s there were more than four-dozen silver compounds on the market, although there was a wide variation of their effectiveness and safety. The first reason for the vast differences is that the compound was available in three forms: oral, topical, or injection form. Second, some were true colloids and some were not, with some containing 30% silver by weight and others hardly had any. Third, the freshness of the colloid, the time elapsed since manufacture, had a lot to do with the effectiveness of the compound (2) .
In the 1940s, the use of colloidal silver in the medical field began to taper off mainly due to the advent of the modern antibiotics, but also due to three other reasons. The first was the high cost. Even in the depression era of the late 1930's, colloidal silver was reported to have been sold for as much as $200 per ounce (in present day dollars.) The second reason was that many of the silver products available at the time contained toxic forms of silver salts or very large particles of silver related to the available technology of the time. The third reason is that in 1938 the federal Food and Drug Administration established that from that point forward, only those "drugs" which met FDA standards could be marketed for medicinal purposes (1). In 1999, the FDA banned the use of colloidal silver or silver salts in over-the-counter products. Silver products can and are sold as "dietary supplements" in health stores only if they make no health claims, but many advertisers ignore the last restriction and still promote the benefits of the use of colloidal silver.
Prolonged contact or too much of colloidal silver can result in argyria, which produces a "gray to gray-black staining of skin and mucous membranes produced by silver deposition" (3). The normal human body contains about 1 milligram of silver, and the smallest amount of silver ingested reported to cause argyria ranges from 4-5 grams to 20-40 grams. The silver is deposited on the face and diffused all over the skin, and as the individual is under the sun the silver darkens as a result of being oxidized by strong sunlight, thus producing the silver/blue/gray complexion (4). There are a few physical signs that suggest the onset of this condition: the first is a gray-brown staining of the gums, later progressing to involve the skin. The color is usually
slate-gray, slightly metallic, or blue-gray and may appear after a few months of silver treatments. The second sign is that the hyperpigmentation is most apparent in the sun, with the exposed areas of skin, especially the face and hands. There are different theories to explain the blue-gray pigmentation to sun-exposed sites, but there are no definite explanations. The third sign is the hyperpigmenatation of the nail beds. The fourth sign is a blue discoloration of the viscera, which is apparent during abdominal surgery (3). While the majority of the individuals using colloidal silver will never developing argryia, some individuals are at a higher risk than others. The Environmental Protection Agency suggests that people with low vitamin E and selenium levels are more susceptible to argyria, as well as individuals with slower metabolisms. People with slower metabolisms have the rest of their natural eliminative systems working more slowly and can be more easily overwhelmed (4). Cases of argyria were most prevalent when silver medications were commonly used, the 1930s and 1940s, and have since become a rare occurrence. The famous "Blue Man," who was exploited in the Barnum and Bailey Circus sideshow, had a classic case of argyria. The most recent case of argyria is Stan Jones, Montana's Libertarian candidate for Senate. He started taking colloidal silver in 1999 for fear that there would be shortage of antibiotics due to Y2K disruptions. People ask him two questions: if his blue-gray skin is permanent and if is he dead. His usual response is that he is practicing for Halloween (6) .
Advocates of colloidal silver believe there is a call for urgent action for the use of more natural alternatives than antibiotics due to the increasing difficulty in treating infections. Colloidal silver is argued to be the best alternative, safe for pets, children, plants, and all multi-celled organisms. From his own bacteriological experiments, Dr. Henry Crooks supports the use of colloidal silver, claiming that all known disease-causing organisms die within six minutes of the ingestion of silver. Medical promoters of the use of colloidal silver allege that the presence of colloidal silver near a virus, fungus, bacterium or any single celled pathogen disables its oxygen metabolism enzyme, or its chemical lung, so to say. Within a few minutes, the pathogen suffocates and dies and is cleared out of the body by the immune, lymphatic and elimination systems (5). People in the medical field against the use of colloidal silver argue that just because a product effectively kills bacteria in a laboratory culture does not mean it is as effective in the human body. Products that kill bacteria are actually more likely to cause argyria because they contain more silver ions that are free to deposit on the user's skin.
There are compelling arguments both for and against the use of colloidal silver as an alternative to antibiotics. However, very little research has been done to test the effectiveness of the use of silver in the human body to fight infections, and the risk of argyria increases as the number of people using silver increases while the amount of information known remains constant. If I had an infection of some kind and had the option of taking an antibiotic or drinking colloidal silver, I would choose the antibiotic. For starters, there is more information about the drug. Many scientists have performed experiments with the drug and know a lot about its effects in the human body. Not much is known about colloidal silver, and the risk of taking too much and permanently changing the color of my skin outweighs any benefits the silver may contain. As more research and testing is done about the effectiveness of colloidal silver, it may be discovered that it is a wonderful alternative to antibiotics, but until it is proven safe and effective with low risks involved, then I believe that people should stick to the safe side and take something they know will be effective and not make them look permanently dead. Furthermore, I find it a little disconcerting that colloidal silver kills all bacteria within five minutes. I would worry if it was doing some other damage along the way and I would worry about other possible long-term effects. I believe that too many people are jumping on the bandwagon concerning colloidal silver; I think an extra measure of caution is necessary due to evident health risks involved. In conclusion, I see a need for further research to be performed regarding colloidal silver, its usage protocol and clinical issues.