Supplements to prevent infection? Yes, there may be.

  • Supplementation may help prevent mild viral infections
  • Some supplements may shorten recovery time

Can a mild viral infection be treated?


Mild viral infection, tough it out?

We have all been through bouts of cold, sore throat, or the likes. There are times when we are lucky and fully recover within a day or two, other times, not. If you choose pull yourself out of bed to the doctors, you are greeted by other unfortunate souls who look and feel equally miserable. Your doctor then does what they do, and tells you it’s a common viral infection, no need for antibiotics, just need to wait it out.

Do you:

  1. Demand for antibiotics?
  2. Wait it out?

Firstly, antibiotics will not make any difference to viral infections. In fact, they may make things worse. For instance, you may develop undesirable side effects or create a strain of bacteria in your body that is resistant to the antibiotics. It’s no different to quelling your hunger pangs by swallowing air.

This is the 21st century, where magical cures for cancer have been developed (think: Gleevec for Acute Myeloid Leukaemia) yet there is still no cure for something that millions of people suffer from on a daily basis? Well, there may be some hope.

There is moderate evidence (which means it’s not as certain as how paracetamol (panadol, acetaminophen) takes away mild pain) that some supplements either prevent, or shorten the duration of mild viral illnesses.

You may have heard of anecdotal evidence that Vitamin C is the immune hero. That is not absolutely correct but there is some scientific evidence that supports it. Vitamin C supports immune cell production and function. A Cochrane Systematic Review conducted in 2013 concluded that vitamin C consumption as a prevention does confer some benefit in preventing colds in athletes. No prevention benefit was noted in the general population but severity and duration of a cold was shorter. If vitamin C was taken after symptoms of a cold appeared, there was no reduction of severity or duration.

What can we do if we were caught on the back foot and need something to ease our symptoms then? Apart from the good old chicken soup and water, our next hero is zinc. Zinc lozenges may be able to reduce the duration of a cold by 2-4 days. A possible theory is that direct contact of the outer layer of throat or upper airways with zinc may limit viral replication, hence reducing the inflammation. It is the inflammation that causes you to feel the symptoms of a cold. Be aware of the amount of zinc you are taking daily as too much zinc may be toxic. Do not use a zinc nasal spray as it may cause permanent damage to your sense of smell.

Next hero on the podium is echinacea. It is a part of tradition medicine which perpetuates into modern medicine. This hero, unfortunately, has more limited scientific backing. A meta-analysis published in the Lancet Infectious Disease in 2007 showed some evidence in its efficacy of preventing and reducing illness duration. Why these evidence are limited is because the trials are small, or very small effects are demonstrated.

In summary, there ARE supplements that may be able to prevent and reduce illness duration. Do note that none of these supplementation should be exceeded in terms of daily dosing. As we always say, seek advice from your doctor before commencing any treatment!

P.S. This article is written during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is still insufficient evidence to show how this can prevent contracting the SARS-CoV2 virus.

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