Vitamin C has long been touted for its supposed ability to treat the common cold. When sickness sets in, many of us immediately turn to vitamin C products such as supplement pills, juices, and cough drops. But does vitamin C really help us prevent and recover from the cold? Or is it simply popular due to a widespread misbelief?
According to the NIH, “Overall, the evidence to date suggests that regular intakes of vitamin C at doses of at least 200 mg per day do not reduce the incidence of the common cold in the general population.” Taking vitamin C regularly also doesn’t reduce the severity of a cold. Moreover, taking too much vitamin C can cause problems. “Like most vitamins and minerals, vitamin C does have an upper limit,” Haggans notes. More than 2,000 mg per day can cause nausea, diarrhea and stomach cramps.
Today’s popular belief that vitamin C can treat the common cold originated from claims made by influential American chemist Linus Pauling during the 1960s. Pauling said that after regularly taking high doses of vitamin C, he felt “livelier and healthier” and no longer experienced cold symptoms. His book on the subject, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, became an instant bestseller. By the mid-1970s, an estimated 50 million Americans were using vitamin C to treat colds, and drugstore sales of vitamin C products had quadrupled.
The Real Benefits of Vitamin C
It’s not all bad news if you’re popping vitamin C supplements. While vitamin C is unlikely to impact whether you get sick or how sick you get, taking vitamin C is associated with slightly shorter illnesses. Researchers found that preventive vitamin C supplementation was associated with colds that were eight percent shorter in adults and 14 percent shorter in kids.
There are a couple other notable exceptions to the “vitamin C doesn’t prevent colds” rule. “For some people, such as marathon runners, skiers and those in the military…[vitamin C] does seem to help reduce the chances of getting a cold,” says Haggans. Those who are under extreme exercise or weather conditions (which could compromise your immune system) may see a benefit from taking between 250 and 1,000 mg of vitamin C.
And while taking extra vitamin C might not help the average person, it is important to meet your recommended daily intake in order to keep your immune system firing on all cylinders. “Vitamin C supplements might also help people with marginal vitamin C intakes, such as elderly people and chronic smokers.
Basically, if you take Vitamin C, you’ll get just as many colds as you did before but they may be slightly less severe and last for a slightly shorter time period.
Of course, there are other potential benefits of Vitamin C supplementation and there’s a lot of epidemiological evidence suggesting that adequate Vitamin C from foods is linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.