5 Benefits of Zinc When Fighting a Cold

woman sneezes
Though the evidence is inconclusive, there's some thought that taking zinc at the first sign of a cold can help speed your recovery. See more pictures of staying healthy.

Sometimes, from the number of people coughing and sneezing around you at work or school -- like zombies threatening to spread their germs your way -- you might think no one actually stays home when they have a cold. However, that isn't the case. Colds are actually the top reason why people call out from work or school [source: National Institutes of Health].

So what is this evil illness that is keeping us home? Well, we're not looking at just one culprit. We're looking at 200. That's the number of viruses out there that can cause a cold and its symptoms. Likely, you are well-acquainted with those manifestations from past experiences. We've all had the sneezing, coughing, sore throat and aches from the common cold [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].


And based on these symptoms, it's no wonder folks will do everything they can to stop sickness in its tracks. Not all remedies are equal, though -- and some are more controversial than others.

Zinc is one of those treatments up for debate. This mineral, which is a natural element in several foods and is essential to our health, is used as a main ingredient in many cold remedies. But is zinc an effective treatment in beating those common-cold zombies out there? Read on to learn five ways zinc may be on our side when it comes to colds.

5: Zinc may lessen the severity of symptoms.

When you think that children get an estimated eight to 10 colds annually, and adults three, the number of sneezes and coughs you hear around you starts to make sense [source: Benkoff]. Well, what if those hacking coughs could become more subtle coughs that don't shake your ribcage so furiously? That's the claim behind the controversial theory that zinc-based cold remedies may lessen the severity of cold symptoms.

It is thought that zinc-based cold remedies, which come in cold lozenges, gels and nasal sprays, may work by actually stopping the cold virus in its tracks. If correct, that means zinc doesn't allow the virus to stick inside of our noses and throats and replicate [sources: Kim, Office of Dietary Supplements]. This would handicap the virus and provide some relief.


However, this theory is largely unproven. In fact, one review of all the research studies conducted on zinc and colds found that just four studies out of 14 that used placebos were conducted with scientific significance and following principles of research design. Of those four, just one outlined positive results [source: Physorg.com]. As such, the general consensus is that more research is needed.

4: Zinc may reduce a cold's duration.

The lingering symptoms of a cold can stick with us for up to two weeks [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. That's a long time to deal with watery eyes, keep tissues close at hand and try to not have your feelings hurt when your pals do their best to avoid you.

So any reports that zinc may reduce the duration of a cold might have us running out to purchase cold remedies with the mineral as an ingredient. And it's true. Although controversial, there are some claims that zinc may cut back a cold's timeline. Keep in mind, though, that the evidence isn't conclusive. Additional research is needed. That said, there is some thought that dose and ingredient variation could be behind why some zinc-based cold medicines are more effective than others [source: National Institutes of Health].


Keeping that in mind, if you are taking a zinc-based medicine, what are the steps you can take to pump up its effectiveness? Consider the following:

  • Start taking zinc at the first sign of symptoms -- within 48 hours if possible.
  • Follow the package directions -- taking zinc frequently and as long as the directions advise.
  • Do not under-dose; remember those directions.
  • Expect possible side effects, such as nausea and an unpleasant taste.

[source: Kim, WebMD]

3: Placebo effect could be a plus.

Just as our favorite blanket has an uncanny way of making us feel better, it is possible that using zinc to treat a cold works simply because you think it should. This refers to the placebo effect, which means that some sort of mind-body connection helps make a treatment feel like it works [source: Gazzaniga].

Therefore, if you think cold remedies with zinc work for you, this could be a completely authentic way for you to get better quicker. Just aim to combine that remedy with lots of rest and fluids [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].


And, of course, the best way to feel better is to avoid getting the cold in the first place. To accomplish this tricky challenge, as well as to keep your virus away from other people, cover your cough, practice hand hygiene, stay home if you are sick and keep others with a cold at a distance.

2: Proper zinc levels boosts immunity.

Earlier, you learned that zinc is an important mineral for your health. It helps our development and keeps our senses of taste and smell in check. Furthermore, it helps the immune system work at optimal levels, which is a great way to fight off infections and illnesses, like colds. In fact, it is thought that zinc deficiencies in more vulnerable populations -- such as kids and the elderly -- are linked to chances of infections, such as pneumonia [source: Office of Dietary Supplements].

You can keep your zinc levels in check by looking no further than your local food market. Foods such as legumes (beans, lentils, etc.), beef, poultry and nuts are high in zinc. Whole-grain foods, such as cereals and breads, are good sources of zinc, though whole grains don't deliver absorbable zinc as readily as meat sources [source: KidsHealth, Office of Dietary Supplements].


1: Zinc promotes quick healing.

We've talked about how the zinc we get from natural foods helps our immunity, but did you know that it also helps with cell growth? Zinc even helps our body heal, which is welcomed assistance when it comes to cuts and wounds [source: KidsHealth].

Certainly cuts and wounds aren't a symptom of the common cold -- unless your illness makes you woozy and you slip with a knife while preparing your chicken noodle soup -- but keeping everything else about your health in tip-top shape does seem like a good move when dealing with a cold. After all, even minor things, like a scrape on the finger can send you over the edge when all you want to do is curl up on the couch and ring a bell for assistance.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Benkoff, Amanda. "Zinc Cold Remedies: Are They Safe and Effective -- Who Nose?" Clinical Correlations. Feb. 11, 2010. (Nov. 2, 2010)http://www.clinicalcorrelations.org/?p=2321
  • "Cold and Flu: Can CAM Help?" National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. February 2010. (Nov. 2, 2010)
  • "Common Cold and Runny Nose." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sept. 1, 2010. (Nov. 2, 2010)http://www.cdc.gov/getsmart/antibiotic-use/URI/colds.html
  • "Do 'Natural' Cold Remedies Work?" CBSNews.com. Oct. 9, 2008. (Nov. 2, 2010)http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/10/08/health/webmd/main4509439.shtml
  • Gazzaniga, Marin. "Cold Hard Facts." MSN. (Nov. 2, 2010)http://health.msn.com/health-topics/cold-and-flu/articlepage.aspx?cp-documentid=100110960&page=1
  • "Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sept. 1, 2010. (Nov. 5, 2010)http://www.cdc.gov/getsmart/antibiotic-use/symptom-relief.html
  • Kim, Kyung-Jin. "Zinc: Combats the Common Cold?" Consumer Health Information Corporation. 2006 (Nov. 1, 2010)http://www.consumer-health.com/services/cons_take48.php
  • "Minerals." KidsHealth. April 2009. (Nov. 2, 2010)http://kidshealth.org/kid/stay_healthy/food/minerals.html#
  • "Zinc." Office of Dietary Supplements. National Institutes of Health. (Nov. 1, 2010)http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
  • "Zinc for Colds: Lozenges & Nasal Sprays." WebMD. March 28, 2009. (Nov. 1, 2010)http://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/cold-guide/zinc-lozenges-cold-remedy
  • "Zinc lozenges an ineffective treatment for colds." Physorg.com. Aug. 2, 2007. (Nov. 2, 2010)http://www.physorg.com/news105279213.html
  • "Zinc reduces common cold symptoms." Reuters. April 17, 2008. (Nov. 2, 2010)http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTON77737720080417