From chicken soup to supplements, there are hundreds of myths about “cold cures.” Here’s the science.

Think Before You Zinc

Zinc’s effectiveness against cold symptoms is more controversial. One study found that zinc lozenges shortened the duration of colds by one-half, while others found no advantage over a placebo. If you want to try zinc lozenges, follow the protocol used in scientific studies: take the lozenges every two hours and stop when your symptoms die down. Don’t assume more is better; excessive doses of zinc can interfere with the absorption of other minerals, and high doses can be toxic.

Get a Dose of Vitamin D

Since colds and flu tend to strike during the darker winter months, some researchers believe a lack of vitamin D, the “sunshine” vitamin, might have something to do with making us more susceptible. At least one study found that a group of kids who took vitamin D supplements had fewer colds than another group that didn’t. There’s still much to learn, but unless you get steady exposure to the sun in the winter it seems prudent to take a multivitamin that contains 100 percent of the daily value for vitamin D.

Don’t Avoid Dairy

Some people avoid dairy products because they are thought to increase mucus secretions, but scientific evidence has yet to support this. There may be some placebo effect at work: interestingly, people who say they believe that milk causes more mucus production tend to report more respiratory symptoms after they’re given milk. But in a blind test using a soy-based drink with similar sensory characteristics as milk, subjects reported the same changes in mucus production as they did with cow’s milk. Don’t skimp on calcium-rich milk and especially not yogurt, which contains beneficial bacteria that may actually stimulate the immune system.

Today, I wonder if my mother would have given me something else to wash down with my ginger ale (maybe vitamin C?). I do know that she made me feel loved and cared for, and that did wonders for my prognosis.

And without a doubt the chicken soup helped.

Rachel Johnson, EatingWell’s senior nutrition advisor, is dean of the University of Vermont College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.

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