Vitamin C for Colds


“Drink your orange juice!”

“Take vitamin C as soon as you feel a cold coming on.”

These are just a few of the things people tell you to do when you start to sniffle and sneeze. But does vitamin C for colds really work? The evidence is conflicting, but vitamin C for colds continues to be a time-honored folk remedy for the common cold.

What Is the Common Cold?

The common cold is caused by a virus that affects the upper respiratory system. The virus invades through the nasal passages, and quickly makes us miserable with the common symptoms of a cold: sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, achy head, sneezing, itchy eyes. As the cold runs its course, secondary infections can develop such as bronchitis or even pneumonia. Because the common cold is caused by one of hundreds, if not thousands, of viruses roaming the planet, it’s impossible to be fully immunized against the virus. It’s also impossible to treat a cold with antibiotics; antibiotics only work against bacterial infections, not against viruses. They’re two different organisms, and taking antibiotics against a viral infection doesn’t help (and may make things worse by increasing the risk of creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains, a worldwide threat.)

What Can You Do to Prevent a Cold?

So what can you do to prevent a cold? Wash your hands. It sounds simple, but colds are often transferred by a sick person coughing or sneezing onto a hard surface that allows the virus particles to stay active for a while. If you touch the surface, you get the particles on your hand; touch your nose, face, eyes or lips, and you’ve just invited the virus in for a nice vacation. Washing your hands frequently removes the virus from the skin surface.

Another thing you can do is to keep your immune system strong. Your first defense is your best defense against viral infections. Avoid white sugar, which suppresses the immune system. Get plenty of sleep and eat a varied, healthy diet. Exercise, fresh air…you know all those things your mother and grandmother told you to do to stay healthy? They work!

Vitamin C for the Cold

But what if you feel a tell-tale sniffle coming on? Will taking extra vitamin C help?

The U.S. National Library of Medicine reports that the evidence suggests taking vitamin C may help ward off a cold if your vitamin C levels are already low. Since vitamin C is not stored in the body, and the human body cannot make its own vitamin C, you must obtain it from the foods you eat. Most people know that citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruits and lemons contain vitamin C, but other fruits such as cantaloupe, strawberries, and other types of berries, pineapple and watermelon also contain vitamin C. Vegetables including green, leafy vegetables, broccoli, turnips, potatoes, squash and tomatoes also provide vitamin C.

The Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University provides a good summary of the many tests and clinical trials conducted on the use of vitamin C to fight the common cold since it was first proposed for this use in 1965. Among the many tests, the results indicate that taking vitamin C after your catch a cold may in fact shorten the duration by 8 to 14 percent. Given how miserable I feel when I catch a cold, I’ll do almost anything to shorten the duration of a cold!

How much to take depends on your health, whether you are a man or woman, your age, and whether you are pregnant or nursing a child. The National Institute of Health provides a chart listing the minimum daily requirements for vitamin C. Consult a nutritionist or health professional for the dosage for shortening the duration of a cold.

Safe Methods of Increasing Vitamin C Intake

While excess vitamin C is flushed from the body through the urine, it’s never a good idea to take too much of any vitamin supplement. A safer method of obtaining more vitamins in your diet is to eat natural sources of vitamins. Here are some ideas for increasing your intake of vitamin C through your diet.

  • Drink a large glass of orange or cranberry juice at breakfast.
  • Add spinach or another green, leafy vegetable to your omelets.
  • Add a portion of vitamin C-rich fruit to your breakfast, such as a cup of diced, fresh cantaloupe.
  • Enjoy a large salad for lunch that includes vitamin C-rich vegetables such as spinach, chard, Romaine lettuce, and tomatoes.
  • Eat two vitamin C vegetables with your dinner, such as a large baked potato or sweet potato and a side of steamed broccoli.
  • Snack on vitamin C-rich fruits, such as berries, oranges, melons and other fruits.

Increasing your intake of vitamin C can help ward off colds as well as provide a rich source of antioxidants for overall good health. So here’s to a healthy, vitamin C rich diet, and to a healthy, cold-free season!

IMAGE SOURCE: Kimubert, Flickr Creative Commons License

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