Taking Zinc for Colds: Is It Really Helpful?

Does Zinc Help With Colds?

Taking zinc for colds has been heavily studied, but does this remedy really work? Zinc is an essential micronutrient. In fact, it’s the second most abundant trace mineral found in the body, just behind iron.

Zinc supplements come in a wide range of forms and are used to treat a variety of health problems, but is zinc a cold remedy? Let's look at what the studies say about taking a zinc supplement for a cold.

A 2011 study shows that not only can zinc supplements reduce the duration of the common cold, but they can also reduce the severity of symptoms. However, this study makes it clear that any form of zinc cold relief must be taken as soon as possible in order to have an effect.

There was also another double-blind, placebo-controlled trial run by James T. Fitzgerald. In this study, Detroit area participants with a cold were given either zinc lozenges or a placebo. In the end, those taking zinc had shortened cold symptoms by two to three days compared to the other participants.

Another study, done in 2017, determined that taking 80 to 92 milligrams of zinc each day at the first sign of a cold could reduce the duration by 33%. But is zinc good for preventing colds, vs relieving them? As of now, there is no documentation that proves this mineral can prevent the common cold.

While more research is needed, the available zinc cold remedy studies show this mineral may be a great way to counteract the duration and severity of this common ailment.

How Does Zinc Help a Cold?

The common cold is caused by a rhinovirus. It is the most common illness worldwide. It causes a scratchy throat, runny nose and sneezing. In the United States, people suffer from one billion colds every year.

However, the common cold isn’t caused by just one virus, but rather, about two hundred different viruses that all cause the same symptoms. The rhinovirus thrives and continues to multiply in the throat and nasal passages. And, unfortunately, the rhinovirus spreads easily from one person to another. A sick person’s sneeze or cough produces a spray that infiltrates anyone nearby. Additionally, handshakes, high-fives and other bodily contacts with an infected person can spread the illness.

Taking zinc for colds may help in multiple ways. First off, zinc supplements may be able to prevent the rhinovirus from multiplying in the body.

Furthermore, taking zinc for a cold may also prevent the rhinovirus from getting lodged in the mucous membranes of the nose and throat. This helps relieve the symptoms caused by a cold.

Research also shows zinc is essential to proper immune function. And, in order to fight off any illness, including the common cold, the immune system must be running at an optimal level.

Zinc and colds are closely connected and it offers a multifaceted solution to combating colds, whether you are taking zinc to shorten a cold or fight the symptoms, research shows zinc is essential.

What’s the Best Zinc for Colds?

Zinc helps colds, but what form is best? Zinc supplements come in a wide variety of different forms. The following are the most commonly used forms of zinc supplements:

  • Zinc gluconate: This is one of the most common types of over-the-counter zinc. Zinc gluconate is found in both lozenges and nasal sprays. 
  • Zinc citrate: A study suggests this zinc supplement is well-absorbed, just like zinc gluconate, but has a more appealing taste with less bitterness. 
  • Zinc sulfate: This form of zinc is used primarily to prevent the onset of zinc deficiency. Studies also show it can reduce the instance and severity of acne.
  • Zinc acetate: Just like zinc gluconate, this form of zinc is added to many over-the-counter lozenges, which can shorten a cold’s duration and alleviate symptoms.
  • Zinc picolinate: Studies suggest the body may absorb this type of zinc better than other forms, including zinc citrate and zinc gluconate.
  • Zinc orotate: This form of zinc binds to orotic acid. Zinc orotate is one of the most common types included in popular zinc supplements.

Zinc gluconate is the most budget-friendly option for consumers. It’s also widely available. However, for a little more money, you can invest in zinc picolinate supplements, which are better absorbed by the body.

In addition to the form, it’s important to pay attention to how your body ingests zinc. Over-the-counter products are typically available as pill supplements, lozenges or nasal sprays. All of these provide an easy way to get your daily dose of this nutrient, while also using zinc to fight colds.

Zinc Lozenges

Do you want to take zinc when you have a cold? You’ll need to determine which type to take. A popular zinc supplement for cold prevention is in lozenge form. This type is proven to be effective.

According to The Open Respiratory Medicine Journal, zinc acetate lozenges of 75 mg per day could reduce the duration of the common cold by 42%. In comparison, other types of zinc lozenges were only able to reduce the cold duration by 20%. Lozenges with a lower dosage of zinc are not as effective.

However, Zinc acetate lozenges can leave a bad taste in your mouth. This is one of the most common complaints with them. However, lozenges without chelating agents may not taste as bad.

Zinc lozenges have other potential side effects, and they’re similar to the side effects experienced when taking pills or using a zinc nasal spray. With that said, lozenges don’t appear to be any less safe than other forms of zinc supplements, but they do provide some benefits over the nasal spray.

Taking zinc at the first sign of a cold is the key to shortening its duration and reducing symptoms. With lozenges, it can be tempting to consume more than necessary, especially if they taste good. It’s important to follow the recommended guidelines and avoid taking more than the recommended dosage.

Zinc Sprays and Gels

Another popular option for zinc and common cold symptoms is nasal spray — or gel. Basically, the gel or spray is inserted into the nose, where it can travel directly into the respiratory system. When these products were first introduced, there was a lot of praise surrounding this type of zinc for cold symptoms.

However, over time, more severe side effects surfaced. Back in 2003, users started complaining about the intranasal products from Zicam, which left a severe and extensive burning sensation in the nose. It also led to a loss of smell, which lasted hours or days. Some people never got their smell back at all, but Zicam didn’t have any warning about this side effect on the label.

It turned out that the zinc gluconate was responsible for altering the smell function —even though zinc is a critical aspect of normal smell function. However, when this substance is applied directly through the nostrils, it can lead to direct toxic destruction of the olfactory organs. Because of this, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a recall on several Zicam Cold Remedy products.

Before that occurred, a study completed in 2006 concluded that zinc sprays were not beneficial when looking to fight the common cold. In fact, the study found that it wasn’t wise to introduce zinc and other metals to the interior of the nose in an effort to reduce cold symptoms or duration.

Zinc Supplements

If you’re planning on taking zinc for colds, you also have the option to take a supplement in pill or capsule form. However, note that when you take zinc for a cough and cold, you may require a slightly higher dose than you would when you’re taking the mineral daily.

You also want to be aware of what type of zinc you choose, from zinc gluconate to zinc acetate. As outlined above, each has its own absorption benefits. You will also find that the percentage of elemental zinc varies greatly by form. For example, about 23% of zinc sulfate contains elemental zinc, meaning that 220 mg of this supplement will yield 50 mg of elemental zinc.

You can usually find the elemental zinc content listed on the Supplement Facts panel on the product you choose. There is very little research indicating the differences between tolerability and bioavailability between the different varieties, so you may have to experiment with different kinds to find the right one for you.

You can also take zinc as part of a multivitamin, but it probably won’t provide the recommended amount of zinc for a cold. Instead, look for a specific formula that provides the zinc cold remedy dosage that’s going to shorten the duration of the cold and reduce symptoms.

Taking a zinc supplement may provide other benefits in addition to helping you fight off a cold. In fact, some people believe zinc supplements can be beneficial for fighting acne, age-related macular degeneration, eating disorders, hyperactivity, depression, diabetes and muscle cramps.

What is the Recommended Zinc Dosage for Colds?

According to the Office of Dietary Supplements, the daily recommended dose of zinc falls between 8 and 13 mg. However, this isn’t the proper daily dose of zinc for a cold.

One study showed that an effective zinc cold treatment consists of taking 13 mg lozenges. When taking zinc to shorten a cold, the Mayo Clinic suggests that 40 mg a day should be the upper limit for most adults, meaning you wouldn’t want to take more than that amount on any given day.

It’s also never recommended to use intranasal zinc for a head cold because of the potential side effects.

Using zinc for a cold may interfere with some medications as well. For example, taking zinc while on a tetracycline or quinolone antibiotic regimen could reduce their effectiveness. To minimize this effect, try to take your zinc supplement dosage for a cold two hours after or four to six hours before the antibiotic.

Additionally, taking zinc for a cold can reduce the effectiveness of penicillamine, a common rheumatoid arthritis prescription. Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider if you take penicillamine.

Finally, if you are taking a zinc daily dose for a cold and are also prescribed thiazide diuretics for your blood pressure, you should talk to your physician. Blood pressure medication can reduce the amount of zinc that’s removed through the urine, so you may need a different zinc dosage for cold prevention.

What Are the Side Effects of Too Much Zinc?

For the most part, there are very few side effects of zinc for colds. It’s considered a safe supplement to take for the majority of healthy adults, and even in some children. One study revealed the most common side effects are nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting. This mineral has also been deemed safe for pregnant and nursing women, as long as the recommended dosage is followed.

However, there may be other side effects of taking zinc for a cold if you take too much. Zinc toxicity leads to headaches, abdominal cramps, a loss of appetite, vomiting and nausea.

One study showed severe vomiting and nausea occurred within a half an hour of ingesting 4g of zinc gluconate, which is equal to 570 mg of elemental zinc.

In another study, people who took 150–450 mg of zinc a day experienced chronic side effects, including lowered copper and immune function, altered iron function and reduced high-density lipoproteins.

Finally, the amount of zinc used during the AREDS study equaled 80 mg per day, taken for an average of 6.3 years. This zinc dose has been associated with an increase in hospitalizations of genitourinary ailments. This result indicates that taking too much zinc to prevent colds could affect urinary physiology.

To avoid taking too much of a zinc supplement, you must know how long to take zinc for a cold. If you are increasing the daily recommended amount to counteract an illness, you don’t want to continue long-term. The upper limits are only meant for short-term usage.

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