The common cold knows no enemies … but it could have a contender. A new review of medical evidence shows that people who take zinc supplements – either syrup, lozenges or tablets — within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms, can shorten their colds by a day. The review also shows that people who take zinc tend to have milder symptoms.
The Cochrane Collaboration, a respected international organization that evaluates medical research, analyzed a total of 15 randomized studies that enrolled a combined 1,360 participants and that all compared zinc with a placebo for the prevention or treatment of the dreaded common cold.
But only shortening the misery, the sniffling, the sneezing, the nose-blowing by one day? Don’t turn your (runny) nose up at the evidence just yet. First, consider this: According to the Cochrane Review, children catch between six and ten colds a year, and adults between two and four.
Moreover, colds account for 40 percent of missed work days – an estimated 275 million lost work days a year in the U.S. alone — and the resulting visits to the doctor alone cost the U.S. an annual $7.7 billion.
The review found people who took zinc supplements were less likely to a suffer from colds that lasted longer than 7 days, and regular zinc use actually worked to prevent colds, and prevent more school absences.
Another benefit: “There was reduced use of antibiotics in those who used zinc,” Kay Dickerson, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who directs the U.S. Cochrane Center told NPR. That’s good, Dickersin said, because antibiotics are generally overused, and are useless against the viruses that cause colds.
“These findings don’t surprise me. We’re learning that zinc can be quite helpful,” Dr. David Rakel, director of integrative medicine at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who was not involved in the review, told CNN. “We know it is an important mineral for immune function and that it can inhibit the replication of some viruses.”
Suffice it to say there’s been a lot of back and forth over the years about zinc’s effectiveness. Ironically a 1999 Cochrane Review found little evidence that zinc helped. However, as NPR points out, the new review evaluated nearly twice as many studies.
Proper dosage remains an open question, though. Zinc is a mineral that occurs naturally in nuts, seeds, meats, fruits, and vegetables. The review’s authors did not recommend specific dosages, but taking too much zinc can cause nausea, a bad taste in the mouth, and other symptoms. Zinc can also interfere with other metals in the body such as copper and calcium.
And in 2009, the FDA advised consumers to stop using Zicam nasal sprays and swabs, which contain zinc, after reports that some users lost their sense of smell after using the product. The Cochrane report did not review any studies of nasal zinc products.
Dr. Meenu Singh, a pediatrician at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, who led the new review told Reuters Health that “giving zinc over a long period of time for prevention should be done very carefully.”
Scientists have been studying the effects of zinc on the common cold for a good 30 years — and the only thing for sure is that a cure is certainly not in sight. But zinc may be just the thing you want to reach for the next time you feel those sniffles coming on.
Photo by anna gutermuth