Does Vitamin C Really Help Prevent a cold?

There’s no question that our bodies need vitamin C – it’s one of the many vitamins and minerals that we need to stay healthy. But do vitamin C supplements really help prevent a cold or are they just a waste of money?

Is the supplements industry taking advantage of us? Image credit: Raysonho via Wikimedia Commons.

First off, What is Vitamin C?

Vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) is one of the many nutrients our bodies need to function normally and stay healthy. Humans aren’t able to produce vitamin C ourselves, so we rely on our diets to get enough of it into our bodies. Luckily, vitamin C is available in many foods we commonly eat, such as citrus fruit, tomatoes, capsicums, and more.

Our bodies use vitamin C to create a huge range of useful products, such as chemical neurotransmitters to transport signals around the brain, and proteins known as collagen used in connective tissue and wound healing (no, it’s not just to keep you looking young!).  Vitamin C also helps our bodies absorb iron from our diets, which is why vitamin C tablets are often recommended for people taking iron supplements.

Finally, vitamin C plays a role in immune function, which may be why many people believe it could help prevent or improve cold symptoms.

What Happens if we don’t get Enough Vitamin C?

If you’ve got a diet low in vitamin C or if your body is unable to absorb it properly, you may end up suffering from vitamin C deficiency. Perhaps one of the best-known facts about vitamin C is that we can get scurvy if our bodies don’t absorb enough of it. As well as causing fatigue, this disease can lead to poor wound healing (because of the reduction in collagen), jaundice, changes in personality, and gum disease. In particularly extreme cases, it can even cause death.

Scurvy is now pretty rare in many areas due to our increased nutritional knowledge and food availabilities, but it was a huge problem in the past.  Sailors were particularly susceptible as they would typically go months without a steady supply of vitamin C. This was a major hindrance for navies and explorers until surgeon James Lind’s 1753 discovery that it could be treated with citrus fruit, which – as mentioned above – is high in vitamin C!

Fortunately, vitamin C supplements are now widely available, so it’s pretty easy to keep your body scurvy-free even if your diet is low in the nutrient. But can they help with our colds?

Something most of us want to avoid. Image credit: public domain, via pxhere.

Do Vitamin C Supplements help Prevent or Improve Colds?

Unfortunately, it looks like they don’t do much. While a popular publication from the 1970s suggested they might have some effect, a multitude of later studies have failed to prove it. Plenty of studies show that popping a few pills after your cold has started has no effect on the duration or severity of the symptoms, and a 2007 review showed that vitamin C supplements don’t significantly reduce the risk of developing a cold for normal, healthy people.There is some evidence to show that regularly taking supplements may help improve symptoms once you have a cold, but they only have a pretty small impact.

Interestingly though, it looks like vitamin C supplements might actually halve the number of colds suffered by marathon runners, skiers, and soldiers exposed to extreme conditions. Intriguing, but not too useful for most of us unfortunately!

So while vitamin C supplements are good for your health if you’re deficient or taking iron tablets, should we really be taking them to combat colds? Well always remember to check your individual circumstances with a doctor, but – unless you’re an elite athlete or a soldier – it’s probably not really worth the money. Just make sure you eat enough oranges!

6 Responses to “Does Vitamin C Really Help Prevent a cold?”

  1. Harriet Kulich says:

    Thanks Paige! Yes, I appreciate why people would look for a more “natural” option, but it is a shame when it doesn’t really work out!

  2. Paige Druce says:

    Great post Harriet. I feel like people love the idea of supplements such as vitamin C so much because it feels like a “natural” and easy way to help them get better. But unfortunately as you have outlined here, unless you are legitimately deficient, supplements don’t do much for you!

  3. Harriet Kulich says:

    Yeah it’s definitely a disappointment to hear we can’t do much about the symptoms, but at least we can save a bit of money I guess?

  4. Xuexiao Yang says:

    Interesting post Harriet! Surprised to know that Vitamin C doesn’t have a significant impact on preventing or improving the cold, as I usually take a lot when I caught a cold before haha.

  5. Murraya Lane says:

    This is so interesting! I am always told by people around me to take vitamin C tablets when I have a cold so its kind of disappointing to know it doesn’t really do much! At least its still important for the body!

  6. Dominic Thorn says:

    Nice post Harriet. Good to hear there are other supplement sceptics out there. It’s hard to believe how big an industry it’s become!