When Should You Take Zinc to Shorten Your Cold?

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Although the common cold is generally considered to be a minor condition, it is responsible for most doctors’ office visits each year.1 For some, a cold will last about a week, but for children and the elderly, it can last longer. The common cold can be caused by more than 200 different viruses.

The American Lung Association warns that colds are highly contagious and spread easily through droplets of fluid containing the virus. There are several factors that may increase your risk of getting a cold, including the time of the year, your age, your immune system strength and your exposure to a cold virus. Symptoms can include a sore throat, runny nose, coughing, headaches and sneezing.2

You have likely noticed that cold symptoms are close to those you may have with seasonal allergies or even flu. With seasonal allergies you may have a stuffy head and runny nose, but the symptoms are usually localized.3 However, with a cold and flu you often experience body aches and fatigue and you may generally feel miserable.

Influenza is often acquired in the same season as colds, but its symptoms are often worse and may include a fever and body chills. People have long sought remedies to shorten the length or severity of a cold and prevent one altogether.

Although Big Pharma may promise drug options to improve your symptoms, natural options offer effective treatment without the side effects associated with medications.

Short-Term Zinc Can Curtail Your Cold

Unfortunately, there is no cure for a viral infection. Antibiotics are not effective as they work on bacteria and not viruses. Since a virus is unable to replicate independently, it hijacks your normal cells, which in turn makes you feel sick. In most cases, supportive therapy is the recommended treatment as your immune system fights off the virus.4

The process your body uses to find, fight and destroy a virus is complex as it employs different types of cells.5 Zinc is an effective natural remedy that has demonstrated its ability to reduce the length of your cold by an average of 33%.6

An analysis of past studies showed that zinc can shorten the duration of the common cold between 28% and 40% using zinc gluconate or zinc acetate. While each was effective to a degree, the study’s authors didn't find a statistically significant difference in duration between those taking a higher dose and those taking a lower one.

In another study7 scientists analyzed data published from 1980 to 2003 and found clinical trials that supported the use of zinc to reduce the duration and severity of the common cold. It was noted that zinc consumption is effective when it is started within the first 24 hours of experiencing symptoms.

The action of zinc against the common cold was first investigated by Dr. Ananda Prasad in collaboration with James Fitzgerald, whose proficiency was in the design of research studies.8

Although Fitzgerald agreed to help, he was skeptical that zinc could influence the duration or severity of the common cold. The initial study was a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in which people living in Detroit with the common cold were given either zinc lozenges or a placebo.

Fitzgerald told NPR: “Lo and behold, when I did the analysis it indeed did shorten common cold symptoms by about two or three days. I was stunned by that result.” While the most current studies also show a positive result in using zinc lozenges, the formulation of the lozenge used in the first study in Detroit isn't available, as Fitzgerald shared with NPR.

Your Results May Vary

Before running out to pick up the first zinc cold lozenge you find, it’s important to recognize there will be differences in the product, which may impact your results. The author of the meta-analysis published in 2017, Dr. Harri Hemilä from the University of Helsinki, cautions it’s difficult to tell you what to purchase.9

Products sold at the local drugstore often contain more than zinc, which may interfere with the effectiveness of the product. Multiple ingredients have a way of interacting with each other, even when they are safe and effective when used on their own. For instance, Hemilä says the zinc products you purchase shouldn’t have citric acid in them because citric acid binds with zinc, so it’s not released into your body.

As described in the 2017 meta-analysis,10 Hemilä found zinc gluconate performed as well as zinc acetate in shortening the length of a cold. In past studies it had been suggested that zinc acetate was the preferred method of delivery since the zinc doesn’t bind as strongly to acetate as it does to gluconate.

The goal of this analysis was to compare the efficiency of zinc to reduce a cold duration after methodology problems were discovered in several past studies and a Cochrane Review of studies was withdrawn when multiple errors were identified.11

Hemilä was careful in the selection of clinical trials for the analysis.12 He didn’t include those in which ingredients in the product may have interfered with the results, such as one trial in which the product contained the sweeteners mannitol and sorbitol. There is some evidence that zinc binds with these sweeteners in the presence of saliva.

Others were excluded since the products contained either citric acid, tartaric acid or sodium bicarbonate — all known to bind with zinc. In each of the studies participants were given more than 75 mg/day of elemental zinc, which you may want to consider if you seek out a zinc lozenge product.

Zinc First Acknowledged as Essential in 1970s

The way zinc first came to the attention of science was again through the work of Prasad. NPR13 reports that in the 1960s Prasad was studying the lack of growth and development in young men from Egypt. He hypothesized that the issue may have been a lack of zinc. When given zinc supplements, the young men grew taller than Prasad anticipated.

This began a journey into understanding zinc that Prasad continues to this day as a 91-year-old scientist.14 He writes of the deficiency, finding,15 that in the past 50 years nutritional insufficiency may have affected up to 2 billion people in the developing world. He points to one component of cereal proteins, phytate, which reduces the amount of zinc your body can absorb.

Cereal proteins high in phytate include wheat bran, rice bran and wheat gluten.16 Prasad writes that zinc deficiencies may present with rough skin, impaired immunity, growth retardation and cognitive impairment.17

As NPR reports, it wasn’t until the 1970s that zinc was identified as an essential nutrient for human health.18 The National Institutes of Health recognizes the importance of zinc in relation to:19

“… approximately 100 enzymes and it plays a role in immune function, protein synthesis, wound healing, DNA synthesis, and cell division. Zinc also supports normal growth and development during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence and is required for proper sense of taste and smell.”

Cold Remedies That Work

Along with zinc, you could try other remedies with a positive track record for use during the common cold. A perfect example is the healing power of vitamin C. In one study the combination of vitamin C and zinc was more efficient than a placebo and it produced faster symptom relief.20

As I’ve written in the recent past, high doses of vitamin C act not only like an antioxidant when you’re sick, but also more like a natural drug without side effects. In the article, “Concerns About Diabetes or Heart Health? Optimize This,” Dr. Suzanne Humphries talks about her work with vitamin C and the importance of using liposomal C to reduce side effects and improve absorption.

It is important to note that large doses of vitamin C or zinc — when taken on a regular basis — impact your copper levels.21 So, while temporary doses to combat a cold or flu are helpful, you could compromise your immune system by taking them year-round.

Another simple remedy to help prevent a cold and speed healing is to get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is associated with a long list of disorders and life disruptions, including negative impacts on your immune system22 as well as dementia.23 The key to recovery is to support your immune system; getting adequate amounts of sleep will help.

If you have trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep or feeling rested when you wake up, you may have developed a few habits that are causing trouble. To get yourself back to good sleep habits and feeling well rested each day, see my tips at “Top 33 Tips to Optimize Your Sleep Routine.”

You may want to try adding apple cider vinegar to your routine for the benefits available from its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.24 It may also help boost your immune function by raising the alkalinity in your body. Be sure to seek out a natural, fermented brand with the “mother” intact.

Care for Your Cold and Reduce Potential for Something Worse

There are more steps you can take to protect yourself during the cold and flu season. For instance, getting enough vitamin D is very important. Vitamin D offers powerful antimicrobial activity and is capable of fighting bacteria, viruses and fungi. Low levels can increase your risk of contracting a cold or flu.25

Another factor that influences your immune system is stress. You’ve probably noticed that when you’re stressed, you’re more likely to get sick.

Whether the stress is associated with grief, relationship issues or projects at work, the result is the same — you’ll have trouble fighting off an infection. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University investigated why this happens,26,27 and found that those who reported being under stress were more likely to get sick when exposed to a virus and then quarantined for five days.28 When stressed, your body releases hormones like cortisol, which temporarily suppress the immune system.

Under chronic psychological stress you become less sensitive to cortisol, which increases your inflammatory response, also impacting the immune system. Lead researcher Sheldon Cohen commented on the results:29

“The immune system's ability to regulate inflammation predicts who will develop a cold, but more importantly it provides an explanation of how stress can promote disease. When under stress, cells of the immune system are unable to respond to hormonal control, and consequently, produce levels of inflammation that promote disease.

Because inflammation plays a role in many diseases such as cardiovascular, asthma and autoimmune disorders, this model suggests why stress impacts them as well.”

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