Fighting the Common Cold: Myths and Facts!

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It’s autumn here in the US, which means we’re heading toward cold season. And THAT means a whole lot of misinformation about how you can avoid whatever bug is currently going around your office, subway car, conference center, or, god forbid, preschool. Here’s a brief overview of what works and what (probably) doesn’t.

First I’ll give you the Cliff’s notes version on vitamin supplements: unless a doctor has done blood tests on you and told you that you are deficient in a certain vitamin or nutrient and then prescribed a supplement to you, regular supplements are pointless. People in cold climates without a lot of sun may be vitamin D deficient, or people who are pregnant or planning to be pregnant could benefit from some extra things, or people who are elderly or undergoing a particular medical treatment may need supplementation — all of those things are special cases and your doctor is the person to help you figure out what you need to take. For the average person, supplements are a waste of money (yes, even if you have a “bad diet” — it’s 2017. Sugar-loaded breakfast cereal has all the nutrients you need to live.

Vitamin C is the most commonly suggested cure and preventative for the common cold. As a reminder, the common cold is caused by a virus, and we currently have no way of “curing” viruses — only managing them and preventing them. There is no evidence to suggest that vitamin C cures or prevents the common cold. There may be a scant amount of evidence that vitamin C might help manage the virus, but you have to take it before the onset of symptoms and it’ll probably only help if you got the cold because your immune system was affected by being very physically stressed, and even then you’re only going to shorten the duration by about 8%.

There’s absolutely no reason to regularly take vitamin C supplements, unless you’re on a ship at sea for several months and you have to stay below deck and it’s the 18th century and you have no access to oranges.

Also, remember that “supplements” like EmergenC and Airborne have been found guilty of false advertising for claiming they can cure colds. Don’t believe something just because you read it on the package.

B-12 is another vitamin people take for colds, often as an injection. It’s supposed to give you energy and boost your immune system, but it’s another case of something working only if you are already seriously deficient in it. B-12 is stupidly easy to consume for the average American (even for vegetarians, though strict veggies and vegans may want to talk to their doctor about whether they’re deficient). Unless a doctor tells you you’re deficient, you’re not going to get any benefit from shooting it into your butt or taking it in pill form.

Finally, I want to mention zinc. As with vitamin C, zinc is touted by alternative product peddlers to be a cure-all, and as with vitamin C, the science is a bit less clear. It may help reduce the duration of colds by preventing the cold virus from replicating, so a lozenge or a spray might help somewhat. But zinc also might permanently remove your sense of smell, which is what happened with the “homeopathic” treatment Zicam. The problem with these treatments is that they’re not well-regulated, so it’s hard to tell exactly how much zinc will work and where it should go without causing damaging side effects. So if you do go the zinc route, know that it might not work and it might cause worse problems than a few days of sneezing.

So what does work? Well, first and foremost I have to say GET THE FLU VACCINE. No, it won’t prevent you from getting the common cold. Hell, it may not even prevent you from getting the flu. But you don’t get it for yourself — you get it for the elderly people, the infants, and the immunocompromised people you interact with every day. If everyone gets vaccinated, then we build “herd immunity” and it stops people from dying from a deadly disease. Yes, the flu is deadly. It’s not just a bad cold. Get vaccinated. You can go to your local drug store right now and pay like $10, even if you don’t have insurance. Do it.

Now on to the common cold. Sleep. Relax. Drink a lot of fluids. Wash your hands after using the bathroom and after sneezing or touching your face or shaking hands or dealing with money. Actually, stop touching your face entirely. Get your filthy fingers out of your nose. Avoid children like the plague, because they are the plague. Children are human petri dishes. If you have children, consider sending them to another continent for the winter. New Zealand is lovely this time of year.

Like with most things in life, preventing and treating the common cold doesn’t rely on a magical pill or spray — it’s just boring maintenance. But hey, at least it works.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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