Will zinc help you get over your winter cold?

I’ve managed to avoid the dreaded winter common cold; when I was teaching I almost always got a cold at the beginning of the semester when students brought those nasty cold viruses into the classroom.

There about a billion colds in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC, but the good news for those of us in the 50+ age group is that we get less colds probably because our lifetime exposure to viruses gives us a leg up in the immunity department.

But, if you do get the scratchy throat and other cold symptoms, will zinc be the answer to preventing the cold or at least reducing the severity? Zinc is an essential nutrient that is found in every cell of our body, acting as an anti-oxidant and critical nutrient in a healthy immune system. Zinc has the potential to inhibit the rhinovirus (the virus that causes most colds) to sticking and replicating in the nose and throat. It can also stop inflammation that contributes the symptoms of a cold…runny nose and stuffy head.

While there are many zinc preparations in the cold and flu aisle of your local drug or grocery store, should you use them? The research results are mixed, of course, they often are, but the latest review from the Cochrane Collaboration (a group that reviews medical topics by reviewing many studies on a particular topic) found that when zinc is taken at the first sign of a cold the length of the illness is reduced by about one day. Underwhelming or is it worth reducing your cold by about 24 hours?

If you want to try it, here are some tips and some personal advice…more on that later. Some considerations if you decide to use zinc lozenges (most provide between 5-10 milligrams of zinc):

  • timing and dose is important, try one zinc lozenge at the first sign of a cold and take it every 4 hours
  • more isn’t better, in fact, in can make things worse; nausea and vomiting can occur and it can leave a metal taste in the mouth
  • avoid zinc nasal sprays…the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers that zinc sprays can lead to changes in the sense of smell and sometimes permanent changes
  • zinc can interfere with some prescription medications, like antibiotics and blood thinners, so always consider potential drug interactions

My personal advice comes from a bad (and stupid) reaction to zinc, even though I should have known better. Several years ago I was on my way to professional meeting in France when I started to get a sore throat..always my first cold symptom. During the flight a colleague’s spouse gave me a bag of zinc lozenges and I popped them like candy for the 9-hour flight. When I arrived at the hotel I was so sick to my stomach I couldn’t even make to the bathroom before vomiting. A great first impression to the conference hosts and hotel staff! And, to add insult to injury I still got sick.

So, my advice is to be careful when using zinc and I won’t touch the stuff after my experience. Instead, I ‘ll stick to chicken soup. In 2000 some physicians actually studied chicken soup and found that it does have anti-inflammatory properties that inhibit a white blood cell that produces mucus. Mom was right about so many things!

4 thoughts on “Will zinc help you get over your winter cold?

  1. I always appreciate your explanations of research organizations and sponsors in layman friendly terms. Thanks so much for your mix of researched-based as well as personal preferences and/or opinions. We can connect with the personal experiences and can trust that you are still delivering the necessary information!


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