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Decoding Cold and Flu Supplements

It has been a fairly mild autumn season and winter is starting to arrive with the cold weather. And cold and flu season. Who has been sick so far?

The flu and many colds are caused by viruses. Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics, since those kill bacterial infections. However, as miserable as many of us feel from a cold or the flu, preventing a cold and getting rid of the symptoms may be high priority.

From the usual rest and fluids and time – and hopefully staying away from others so they do not get sick too – do you reach into the pharmacy aisle for a cold or flu supplement? In this winter season, let's decode some common cold and flu supplements.

Vitamin C. As an antioxidant vitamin involved in immune health, vitamin C is touted to prevent and reduce the length of cold and flu symptoms. Studies on this topic have shown inconsistent results. Even if it does not shorten a cold, vitamin C is important to your body for immune health when you do get sick. Focus on food sources of vitamin C (kiwi, citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, etc.), tomatoes, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, potatoes, etc.) before you reach for a vitamin C supplement.

Echinacea. This flower has also been used in cold and flu supplements. Like vitamin C, the research on echinacea is inconsistent for preventing and/or reducing length of colds and the flu. At this time, it is not recommended for cold or flu prevention.

Zinc. This mineral is involved in immune health, so it is promoted as a cold and flu remedy. As with the other remedies, research does not clearly connect taking zinc for cold or flu prevention or symptom reduction. Like vitamin C, however, we need zinc for healthy growth, development, and repair of our bodies. Focus on food sources of zinc (beef, beans, nuts and seeds, cheese, etc.) before reaching for a supplement.

Combination Cold/Flu Supplements. Beyond single-ingredient products, combination supplements are available that combine antioxidant vitamins like vitamins A, C, and E, minerals like zinc, selenium, and magnesium, and other plants like Echinacea and ginger. Additional ingredients may be added to influence color, taste, and other factors of the product. Similar to our other products, there is conflicting evidence about the effectiveness of these supplements.

Cure or Support

Note that all these supplements, and others promoted for cold and flu, are not designed to treat or cure a cold or flu. These products will state that they "support" immune health or other statements allowed for supplements. Nutrients in foods will be more important support for your immune system.

If you are having a tough time eating a nutrient-rich diet, adding a multivitamin supplement can fill in the gaps of nutrients you may not be getting. Remember, a cold or flu supplement – even a multivitamin – is not likely to prevent or improve symptoms of a cold or flu.

Other Steps for Cold and Flu Season Health

  • Wash hands. This is your best defense all year round to limit getting sick.
  • Eat fall and winter fruits and veggies. Winter squash, apples, Brussel sprouts, cranberries, pears, etc. are all nutrient-rich foods that will provide needed vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Eating in-season and buying canned and frozen foods along with fresh can help reduce your grocery costs.
  • Eat simple when sick. When sick, stick to easy to eat foods, like scrambled eggs, cooked rice, mashed potatoes, applesauce, etc. You still need to eat even when sick. Foods like these may be easy to eat with a sore throat and be bland enough to limit any nausea you feel.
  • Take in liquids. From hot tea and cocoa to broth-based soups, the extra liquid is important as your body heals.
  • Rest. Give into your body's needs when sick and rest comfortably on a couch, bed, or cushion.

Decoding Supplements

If you find that getting nutrients though food is hard – such as difficulty swallowing, dietary restrictions, increased nutrient needs in certain population groups, etc. – it may helpful to use nutrient supplements.

Be aware:

  • Supplements are not regulated in the same way drugs and foods are. Companies making supplements are responsible for evaluating safety of the supplement, not the FDA or another regulatory agency.
  • Taking supplements may not provide much benefit if you already get those nutrients through food. If you already eat foods with nutrients, taking a supplement with a few specific nutrients may not improve your health. The body can only use so much of a nutrient. And may be harmful in large doses.

Bottom Line

Go for "foods first" when it comes to your health. If you decide cold and flu supplements are worth using, talk with your doctor to make sure they do not interfere with medications, and continue to make healthy food choices each day.


Today's post was written by Caitlin Huth. Caitlin Huth, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and Nutrition & Wellness Educator serving DeWitt, Macon, and Piatt Counties. She teaches nutrition- and food-based lessons around heart health, food safety, diabetes, and others. In all classes, she encourages trying new foods, gaining confidence in healthy eating, and getting back into our kitchens.