Colds and flu

09 September 2019

Does taking zinc actually do anything to help kick a cold?

Read this before you go to the pharmacy.

Our bodies are pretty magical. Cut your arm and the skin regrows. Break a bone and it fuses back together. Catch a cold and your body gets right to work creating antibodies to battle the virus. Now, if only your body knew how to undo the nasty pain or symptoms of an ailment, too.

But until that day arrives, your colds are going to come along with coughing, sneezing, sore throats, and stuffy noses (alas). And while there are tons of medicines and supplements that claim to ease these symptoms, not everything is actually worth the money or effort if it’s not actually proven to help a cold.

Enter zinc: a mineral that’s *said* to cut the length of your cold in half and/or help prevent colds.

If zinc for colds sounds too good to be true, that’s because there’s a good chance it is. “Study results are mixed, but the short answer is that zinc probably doesn’t prevent or treat a cold,” says Dr Tina Ardon, a family medicine doctor at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.

For adults, the evidence is pretty clear that zinc does nothing to prevent a cold. And there’s limited evidence (science-speak for “maybe, but we don’t have proof”) that zinc can shorten a cold, but if so, it’s only by about a day, she says.

Still, one less day of sniffling and sneezing sounds pretty great, so zinc might be worth a try (though you should definitely check with your doctor first to make sure zinc won’t interfere with any current meds you’re taking). Here’s what you need to know before you take any zinc supplements.

READ MORE: 5 Ways To Boost Your Immune System And Avoid Getting Sick

When should I take zinc for a cold if I want to give it a try?

The few studies in favour of zinc consistently say you have to start taking zinc within 24 hours of first noticing cold symptoms — or else it’s useless. That means taking a trip to the pharmacy as soon as you feel the tickle of a sore throat.

The form of zinc you take also matters. The pill version may help, but “studies indicate if it will be effective, it’s most effective in the syrup or lozenge form (i.e. orally),” Dr Ardon says. But whatever you do, it’s best to stay away from the nasal spray version of zinc. “Some patients have suffered permanent loss of smell using zinc nasal sprays,” she says. Yikes.

It’s also really easy to take too much zinc when you’re inhaling it. Unlike vitamin C, which you’ll just pee out if you take too much, an overdose of zinc can be toxic. “Toxicity can cause damage to the nervous system, anaemia, or even copper deficiency,” Dr Ardon says. Unfortunately, it’s unclear from studies what the right dose of zinc is, because many studies have used different doses. So stick with the syrup or lozenges, and don’t take more than prescribed on the packaging.

How much zinc can you take in a day?

The National Institutes of Health suggest that adult women get around eight milligrams of zinc each day, but warns against taking more than 40 milligrams daily. Double-check that your dosage isn’t close to or more than 40 milligrams (and remember, you’ll get some zinc from the food you eat, too). It’s also important to note that any cold medicine you’re taking on top of zinc supplements could also contain zinc, adding to your daily dose.

READ MORE: 10 Cold And Flu Remedies That Actually Work

Should I be worried about any side effects?

If you’ve already downed more than recommended, look out for these side effects (which can indicate you’re taken too high of a dose of zinc): nausea, upset stomach, a bad taste in the mouth, and diminished smell. If these symptoms don’t go away, call your doc.

And if you’re turned off by the idea of zinc, don’t worry. There are other ways to take care of your cold. Dr Ardon says most over-the-counter cold meds won’t do much; your best bet for beating the virus is to drink plenty of fluids, get lots of sleep, eat some chicken soup, and let your body work its magic.

This article was originally published on 

Image credit: iStock


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Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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