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Myths and Facts: What to Eat To Beat The Common Cold

Posted by Joan Salge Blake  January 10, 2013 11:21 AM

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Photo Source: CDC
You know you have a cold when you catch it.  Your nose begins to run like a leaky faucet, and your nostrils are beet red from constantly wiping the nasal drip.  Your stuffy head feels like you inhaled a wade of cotton, and your throat is sore because of the continual coughing.

Unfortunately, you were unlucky enough to inhale at least one of  200 or more viruses that cause Americans to suffer with more than a billion colds annually.   The common cold is the leading cause of work and school absenteeism, which can make you feel miserable for up to two weeks.   Kids are walking Petri dishes as they not only infect each other but also are the likely cause of infecting adults around them.

Can you eat to beat the common cold?  Here are some myths and facts:

MYTH:  Vitamin C Wards Off Colds

In the 1970s, the scientist Linus Pauling theorized that consuming vitamin C would prevent a person from catching a cold.  However, the latest extensive review of almost 30 controlled studies of over 11,000 individuals, who popped 200 milligrams or more of vitamin C daily, suggests that the regular ingestion of a supplement doesn’t prevent healthy individuals from getting a cold.  However, research did show that individuals who are involved in short periods of heavy physical stress such as marathon runners and skiers, may gain some protection against the common cold when routinely taking a supplement.

Photo Source:  CDC
FACT:  Vitamin C May Help Reduce the Duration and Severity of a Cold

Research does suggest that regularly consuming vitamin C may reduce the severity of symptoms and decrease the duration of a cold should you catch it.  While it is very individualizes, the reduction is only about a day annually, and the jury is still out on the amount needed to reap this small benefit.  The good news is that Americans, on average, are not only meeting their daily need of 75 to 90 milligrams but you can easily rack up more than this amount through your diet. A cup of OJ contains 124 milligrams, a red pepper slices up 226 milligrams, and a cup of broccoli provides 100 milligrams of vitamin C.  Supplement users beware: taking too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea, nausea, and kidney stones in those with a history of kidney disease.

MYTH:  Echinacea Can Prevent a Cold

A study of over 700 individuals in the Annals of Internal Medicine failed to prove that the herb, Echinacea, prevented getting a cold compared to those getting a placebo or no treatment.  Results are mixed as to whether the herb can reduce the duration or the severity of cold symptoms.  A big problem with using Echinacea is that the available supplements on the market vary greatly between the nine different types of the herb as well as the various parts of the plant used in the product.   Some individuals may also experience side effects such as intestinal discomfort, rashes, increased asthma, and a life-threatening allergic reaction after consuming Echinacea.

FACT:  Zinc Can Be Helpful

In a review of 15 controlled trials, zinc lozenges or syrup were shown to help reduce the duration and severity of colds in healthy people, when consumed within the first 24 hours of the first sniffle.  But there is a catch.  Those taking zinc lozenges may experience nausea and a bad aftertaste in their mouth.  More research is needed to determine the correct dosage and usage for the general population, especially those with chronic illnesses.  Check with your health care provider before you pop a lozenge or take a dose of zinc syrup.

MYTH:  Garlic Can Reduce the Length of a Cold

While garlic has been believed to treat the common cold, the research is less than robust.  In a study of over 145 individuals, those who took garlic daily for three months suffered with cold the same length of time as those taking a placebo.  However, if you want to add it to chicken soup (see below) for a little flavor, feel free.

Photo Source:   Cooking Light
FACT:  Chicken Soup Can Help

Never question your mother and her chicken soup.  According to Dave Grotto, RD, the author of The Best Things To Eat (2013), “in the 1200s, the Jewish scholar, Maimoides claimed that colds should be treated with a warm “brew,” which we have come to know as chicken soup.”   Maimoides may be on to something.  The heat, salt, and fluid in the soup can help you feel better and fight infection.  Also, according to Grotto, research suggests that chicken soup may have an anti-inflammatory effect on the upper respiratory tract, which can reduce the duration of the cold.

Here's to a cold-free winter.

                                                          Follow Joan on Twitter at:  joansalgeblake 

Originally published on the blog Nutrition and You!.
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, LDN, is a clinical associate professor and registered dietitian at Boston University in the Nutrition Program. Joan is the author of Nutrition &You, 2nd Edition, More »

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