2006_09_ask_vitamins.jpgCold season is quickly arriving, are vitamins going to actually do anything to keep me from getting sick? Can you really OD on vitamins?

According to WebMD, the number one thing you can do to prevent a cold is to wash your hands frequently. Since colds are caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help to prevent, or alleviate your illness. A healthy and well-nourished immune system can help you to fight off viruses, so pay attention to the foods you are eating. Dark green foods will get you your vitamins A and C, salmon provides you with omega-3 fatty acids, and low-fat yogurt may stimulate the immune system. It is always ideal to get your daily vitamin intake through the foods you eat, but supplementing with vitamins is not a bad idea. (This is because there are additional nutrients such as fiber that cannot be adequetely replaced by a pill) However, there are mixed reviews as to whether large doses of vitamin C actually prevent colds. Some studies do show that they help to shorten the duration though. Regular exercise also boosts your immune system, so get out there and enjoy the crisp fall weather. A healthier body will bounce back quicker from illness than a less-healthy one.

So, the short answer, is a healthy immune system will help you prevent a cold, and shorten the duration. However, vitamins combined with an unhealthy lifestyle are not going to cut it.

As far as overdosing on vitamins, it is possible, but fairly rare. Some vitamins, such as vitamin C, are water soluble, so the body will not store excess amounts. What the body cannot use, it will excrete. In a US study from 2003, of 50,000 reported exposures, there were 63 major adverse outcomes and 4 deaths. The most serious risk comes from iron and calcium.

The symptoms of a (nonspecific) vitamin overdose include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and rash. Specific vitamin overdose symptoms can be found here.

Complementary and alternative therapies, as well as traditional folk remedies, are widely used to treat colds.

According to 1 study of more than 200 patients, zinc nasal gel taken within 24 hours of the onset of a common cold may reduce the duration of symptoms (Hirt, 2000). Studies of oral zinc have yielded mixed results. Unpleasant taste and nausea have been reported. Studies on the use of zinc to treat colds in children are limited.

Echinacea taken at the onset of cold symptoms in children aged 2-11 years does not seem to reduce the duration or severity of symptoms compared with placebo. Some children had a rash in response to echinacea (Taylor, 2003).
Traditional folk remedies include sipping hot water with a teaspoon of honey and fresh lime or lemon juice. Honey should not be given to infants because of their inability to easily digest spores commonly contained in honey. Teas made from demulcent herbs are traditionally used to soothe sore throats. Such herbs include slippery elm bark (Ulmus rubra), marshmallow root (Althea officinalis), and licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra). One study of 60 adults revealed a temporary favorable trend in improving symptoms of pharyngitis when they drank a tea containing these herbs compared with placebo (Brinckmann, 2003). Prolonged, excessive use of licorice, another folk remedy, may affect the patient's potassium levels and volume status.

What are your favorite feel-better strategies?

Kapil Desai also contributed to this post