Coughing, sneezing, runny nose. You know the drill. It’s the common cold.
And when it comes to fighting off a cold or speeding up recovery time, there are tons of myths about which supplements and medicines can get the job done. At the top of the list are vitamin C and zinc. But if you’ve ever tried these nutrients to speed up your own recovery time, you’ve likely wondered just how effective they really are.
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What Does Taking Vitamin C and Zinc Do for You?
The truth is: Vitamin C and zinc are not effective home remedies in treating a common cold. But the good news is consuming them will help you in other ways.
“I believe that supplements such as vitamin C can help to boost your immune system, but we also have to be aware of risks of too much zinc or vitamin C and the side effects that can occur. As we saw during this pandemic, masks may be the future to help reduce viruses as well,” says Rina Chabra, DO, of Superior Family Medicine-UPMC.
As for kicking symptoms of the common cold, try these methods instead.
When you feel a cold coming on, it’s all about managing your symptoms. That’s because the common cold is actually a type of virus, and there’s no great way to combat a virus with medicines and supplements. You can’t “kill” the common cold with antibiotics.
Instead, we often turn to products that limit mucus, clear our sinuses, and soothe our throats. The other tactic often heard about is boosting your immune system, and that’s where vitamin C and zinc come into play.
Both vitamin C and zinc are effective at boosting the immune system. The problem is, you can’t boost your immune system enough with these two nutrients while battling a cold. Instead, you need to be using these supplements year-round to avoid the common cold in the first place.
A study on zinc in the Journal of Family Practice showed that using the supplement when you already had symptoms a cold was not a promising treatment method, but that using it to prevent a cold could lessen the duration once patients showed symptoms.
Another study mentioned that scientists have debated the efficacy of vitamin C in treating the common cold for decades. The study failed to show that vitamin C prevented the common cold and it only seemed to reduce the duration of the cold in about 8 percent of adults and 14 percent of children. Vitamin C is both a nutrient and an antioxidant. It serves to help form blood vessels, muscle, collagen, and cartilage, while also protecting cells from the effects of smoking, X-rays, and radiation from the sun. While these effects may not play a large role in protection from a common cold, they are essential to good health, meaning consistent vitamin C consumption may help keep the body healthier overall, but not cure or prevent the common cold.
Both zinc and vitamin C come in supplement form which can be taken orally. The recommended amount of zinc an adult should consume is about 40 mg per day, and the recommended amount of vitamin C is about 75 mg to 90 mg per day. You can take zinc with vitamin C to ensure you reach the recommended amount, however there are more benefits to consuming foods with these nutrients already in them, such as citrus fruits and cruciferous vegetables, rather than supplementing.
Is it OK to take zinc everyday?
You should only supplement these nutrients if recommended by your doctor. There can be side effects from consuming zinc as a supplement. These side effects include upset stomach, irritation of the mouth, and problems with tasting. In some cases, zinc nasal sprays are known to lead to permanent loss of smell.
Similar side effects are noted from taking too much vitamin C. Side effects include: heartburn, nausea, headaches, stomach cramps or bloating, and or fatigue. Vitamin C is also suspected to limit the effectiveness of other treatments involving statin or niacin, chemotherapy, aluminum, or anticoagulants. Vitamin C has also been found to increase levels of estrogen in the body.
Preventing the Common Cold
The average American gets the common cold two to three times a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are tons of cold virus strains, which means you’re at risk of catching a new one all the time.
The general advice for avoiding the common cold is plenty of handwashing, and the best methods involve soaping your hands for at least 20 seconds. In addition, it’s wise to avoid touching your face throughout the day so you don’t introduce the virus to your eyes, nose, and mouth.
You also can use alcohol-based sanitizers and focus on disinfecting surfaces such as desks and doorknobs in shared home and work spaces. Of course, it’s always wise to avoid someone who has symptoms of the common cold, including sneezing, running nose, coughing, body aches, and/or headache. If you have these symptoms, do your part to stay home to get well and to avoid spreading the cold to others.
Here, too, studies run the gamut in determining efficacy of prevention methods. One comprehensive study showed no benefit to vitamin C, gargling, ginseng, garlic, or exercise. The same study showed zinc was “likely beneficial.”
At the top of the list were physical interventions, such as handwashing and wearing gloves and masks, which proved beneficial.
Managing Symptoms of the Common Cold
Even if you practice the best methods of prevention, chances are good that you’ll still come down with the common cold. Once you have it, the best way to combat it is with plenty of rest and fluids so your body is prepped to fight off the virus.
There are some studies that show decongestants offer short-term relief as well.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
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