We’re only in January, and this cold and flu season has already been a doozy–one of the worst in years, in fact. On any given day last month, 4 percent of Americans reported being sick with the flu and 11.6 percent said they had a cold. Those figures are the highest they’ve been since Gallup started keeping track in 2008.
Worse news? It’s too early to know if we’re through it yet. In 2009-2010 the flu season peaked early, in the fall. But usually, the highest flu reports come in January and February–so there could be a lot of illness yet to come. If you’ve managed not to get sick yet this year–or if you have and want to avoid a repeat–you might be reading up on the best ways to prevent illness. Washing your hands regularly is a big one. The flu shot is another. Keeping yourself generally healthy is never a bad idea. But there are a few other weapons in your anti-sickness arsenal, and zinc might be one of them.
What Does Zinc Do?
Zinc is an essential mineral found in foods like oysters and eggs. The nutrient is important for many different aspects of cellular metabolism, including immune function, cell division, and wound healing. It’s also important for general growth and development during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence, and is important for our senses of taste and smell.
Oysters have far more zinc per serving than any other food, making them an excellent source of the mineral. But because most of us don’t eat oysters every day, most of our dietary zinc intake comes courtesy of red meat and poultry. You can also find zinc in crab, lobster, fortified breakfast cereals and beans. Zinc is found in some plant foods, but it’s less bioavailable than in animal sources because the phytates in grains and legumes bind to zinc and inhibit its absorption–something to keep in mind if you rarely or never eat animal products.
The recommended daily intake for zinc is 11 mg daily for adult males and 9 mg daily for adult females. Pregnant women should get 11 mg daily, and those who are lactating should take in 12 mg.
One important thing to note is that our bodies don’t store zinc–that means we have to get it every day, in our diets and/or through supplements, because we don’t have any backups of the mineral to rely on.
The Research on Zinc and Colds
A 2014 review of 67 studies, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found that zinc supplements showed some effectiveness against the common cold. Two studies found that children who took 10 or 15 mcg of zinc sulphate each day missed less school because of colds, and the researchers said there was no indication that zinc couldn’t have a similar effect in adults. Another study found that zinc lozenges could cut the length of a cold by a day.
It’s thought that zinc may fight colds by preventing the rhinovirus that causes most of them from multiplying, and/or by preventing it from lodging in the mucus membranes of the throat and nasal passages.
If you do opt to take zinc for cold prevention or treatment, you’re likely best off with a lozenge or syrup–rhinovirus thrives in the upper respiratory system, and these two methods of taking the supplement help the zinc come into contact with the virus more easily.
And remember, if you experience any side effects stop taking the supplements and see your doctor. Avoid zinc nasal sprays–some people have experience loss of smell after using them. And keep in mind that the recommended upper limit for zinc intake is 40 mg per day for adults aged 19 or older. Zinc can also interact with medications like Cipro and diuretics, so speak to your doctor about any supplements you’re taking and how they might affect your prescriptions.
Photo by Sean Freese