It’s hard to separate hype from health these days, especially when it comes to treating the common cold. Without an effective, proven medical treatment to control sneezes and sniffles, all sorts of remedies — some more valid than others — have managed to muscle their way on to our medicine shelves. But at least one, it seems, may actually do some good.
After reviewing 15 studies involving zinc, in the form of lozenges, tablets or a syrup, researchers report that the mineral may help to shorten the duration of a cold and reduce the severity of its symptoms. And children who take zinc supplements regularly may even be able to prevent colds and reduce the number of days they miss from school. (More on Time.com: Sniffles and Sneezes: Canadian Herbal Remedy Wants to Be Approved for Kids)
Meenu Singh and Rashmi Das at the Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, conducted a detailed review of the available trials involving zinc’s effect on colds. Their data, published in the Cochrane Library, included 1,360 subjects and showed that zinc, if taken within 24 hours after the first signs of a cold, can shave off about a day of illness and lessen symptoms by about 40%. Previous studies have yielded conflicting results, but the combined review supports the beneficial effects of zinc in treating colds.
While most of us are more familiar with zinc in its cream form, zinc oxide, which is used as an effective sunscreen in the summer, it turns out that zinc may work wonders in the winter as well. It’s not exactly clear how zinc thwarts the cold-causing rhinovirus, but researchers think it may bind to immune cells, preventing the virus from making the same attachments and triggering infection. The zinc mineral may also interfere with viral replication by obstructing its ability to make key proteins that the virus needs to survive.
Even more encouraging, in two of the reviewed trials that studied zinc’s potential in preventing colds, it appeared that regular zinc supplementation over five months reduced the number of colds that young children caught. Zinc also helped these youngsters use fewer antibiotics, and miss less school due to illness.
That’s an important finding, especially since missed school days not only impact children’s education but also have a domino effect on adult productivity, since parents often have to excuse themselves from work in order to take care of their sick offspring. All told, colds, which contribute to up to 100 million visits to the doctor each year, costs the U.S. economy about $20 billion annually. (More on Time.com: How to Lower Your Risk of Catching a Cold: Work Out)
So is zinc the answer to relieving the misery of a cold while saving health care costs? While the evidence is encouraging, Singh notes that the review included studies that involved different doses of zinc, which still makes it difficult for physicians to “prescribe” zinc supplements to treat a cold. “A consensus still needs to be built about the [form of zinc] to be used and the most appropriate dose,” Singh wrote in an email response.
It may also end up having additional health benefits, particularly for children with other chronic conditions such as asthma or allergies. “It may be a useful adjunct in children who are at risk of exacerbations of other respiratory illnesses,” wrote Singh. If that’s true, it would truly make zinc a year-round health staple.