Can vitamin C help treat a cold?

Man drinking a glass of orange juice in his kitchen

When cold season comes around, many people start to load up on vitamin C by taking vitamins, drinking orange juice, or using cold treatments containing vitamin C to prevent getting sick. It’s been studied for years as a treatment for colds, but the information has been conflicting.

Megadosing on vitamin C might seem like a good idea to stop a cold from coming on, but will it help? Mindy Lacey, MD, Nebraska Medicine family medicine physician, tells us about the benefits of vitamin C and how it can help with the common cold.

What is vitamin C?

Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is water-soluble, meaning our bodies don’t create or store it. It’s found in fruits, vegetables and supplements, and plays a role in controlling infections and healing wounds. Because vitamin C is an antioxidant, it neutralizes harmful free radicals that can damage cells.

“When we’re exposed to too much sun, vitamin C will help protect the skin as an antioxidant,” says Dr. Lacey. “It also protects from other environmental aggressors like cigarette smoke, pollution, UV light and other toxins.”

Dr. Lacey explains vitamin C is necessary for the growth and repair of body tissues and functions, namely collagen and immune system functionality, and absorbs iron.

Does vitamin C help with a cold?

Studies are ongoing about vitamin C’s relationship to the common cold, but Dr. Lacey tells us vitamin C won’t prevent colds despite what we’ve heard.

“It doesn’t prevent the common cold,” says Dr. Lacey. “It may help decrease the duration of a cold, but simply taking vitamin C will not prevent or cure your cold.”

A cold is a viral infection in the body that produces toxins and free radicals, which are created when our body breaks down food or is exposed to secondhand smoke. Free radicals are unstable atoms that can damage cells, causing illness and aging. Vitamin C will neutralize those free radicals, and colds won’t last as long. There’s also evidence that vitamin C can prevent the common cold from becoming more serious, such as pneumonia or lung infections.

What foods contain vitamin C?

“Everyone thinks about citrus foods when they think of vitamin C, but actually, oranges do not have the highest amount of vitamin C,” says Dr. Lacey. “Bell peppers have the highest amount of vitamin C.”

Along with bell peppers, people can get vitamin C from broccoli, tomatoes, kiwi, and strawberries. The recommended daily allowance of vitamin C is 90 mg for men and 50 mg for women.

“People who don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables should consider a supplement, but if you have a diet rich in vitamin C, you don’t need to take supplements,” says Dr. Lacey.

Most people aren’t deficient in vitamin C, but those who are may experience bleeding gums, dry skin, nosebleeds and a more difficult time fighting infections. A severe form of vitamin C deficiency is known as scurvy.

How can you treat the common cold?

There is no cure for a cold; it has to run its course. But staying hydrated, resting, eating foods rich in nutrients, and taking over-the-counter medications can ease symptoms and keep you comfortable while you get better. If a cold doesn’t go away after 10 days, contact your doctor for an appointment.

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