Taking zinc for the common cold

The Cochrane Collaboration is a very well-respected international non-profit whose 28,000 volunteers review the best, solid evidence to help determine if medications or other health interventions really work. They are, in short, da bomb.

When Cochrane speaks, people listen.

Cochrane recently released a review of studies examining the effectiveness of zinc supplementation on preventing and treating the common cold.

They found that there was good evidence that zinc taken early, during the first symptoms of a cold, can lessen the duration and severity of illness; furthermore, zinc taken daily during cold season can reduce the frequency of these annoying infections.

There were only 15 good quality studies to look at, involving a total of about 1400 patients. Because the studies varied in how much zinc was given, in what form, and how often, no conclusion could be drawn about the best dosing strategy. Nor could any conclusions be drawn about using zinc in children. Still, the evidence tantalizing, and more research is needed to pin down these details.

Zinc is fairly well-tolerated and safe. The most common side effects reported were an unpleasant taste and nausea. There is no particular reason to think zinc in reasonable doses would be unsafe in children or adults.

If you want to try zinc, there are drops, lozenges, and pills to choose from of varying strength and composition. Follow label directions for dosing. For these products to work to treat the cold, you have to start them quickly, and take them frequently throughout the day.

One other warning: the Cochrane review was looking at genuine, therapeutic doses of zinc. Many other zinc products are produced and marketed as “homeopathic”—meaning there isn’t any actual zinc in the bottle. Homeopathy is literally nothing. It’s a kind of witchcraft that relies on the nonexistent magical memory of water. Don’t waste your money on anything labeled “homeopathic.” If you want to try zinc, choose a genuine zinc product that measures the dose in milligrams, not in magic memories.

Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at The Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool: A Parent’s Guide and A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • Lisa Sutphen

    There was no mention of zinc being an antagonist of iron, so those that need to be concerned about low iron levels should be aware of this if they decide to increase their zinc supplementation!

    • AnnR

      That’s exactly the sort of unmentioned detail that causes me to be suspcious of any supplementation. I feel like the best strategy is always sticking with a balanced diet.

  • http://www.endoflifeblog.com Jim deMaine, MD

    Interesting comments about homeopathy. It was invented by Hahnamenn in the 1800′s and was felt to be effective because bloodletting and toxic drugs were actually severely harming patients. Hahnamenn had three principles: 1) There is a common but undefined disturbance in “life force” as the cause of all illness, i.e. no acceptance of the germ theory of infectious diseases; 2) “Similia similibus curentur” or “Like cures like”. If a homeopathic medicine is administered to healthy patients and symptoms occur, then this medicine would be expected to cure these same symptoms; 3) the more dilute a medication is, the more potent it is. The dilutions occurred serially with a certain number of bottle shakes along the way. Even though one molecule was no longer possible given the vast dilution, the diluent was supposed to maintain the memory of what was once it it.

    Oliver Wendell Holmes likened this to rowing out into the ocean, dumping a thimble full of medication overboard, then prescribing sea water.

    Homeopathy remains popular in alternative medicine therapies and is a great example of the placebo effect. However, my well educated friends still head to the health food stores for their Arnica (which is listed for 30+ ailments some of which could be serious). Zinc in homeopathic doses is harmless but ineffective – just a biopsy of your wallet! How gullible we are in our need to “take something”.

  • ancym

    Although, ironically, Zicam, which was sold as a homeopathic remedy in the US, actually contained zinc (at one time) & was taken off the market for awhile after it was suggested that its use might be linked to a loss of sense of smell – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zicam

  • Jane

    I get vicious colds and Zicam really seemed to work for me. While Zicam still has products on the market, I don’t think they still sell the original zinc swabs which is a shame.

Most Popular