A way to possibly shorten symptoms by 2 days? Sign us up!

As we tiptoe into cold and flu season, medical pros are sounding the usual alarms: Get your flu shot! Wash your hands! Stay home if you're sick! And now, after what we've learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, keep wearing that mask!

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, "To get the most protection against COVID-19 and flu this season, make sure you get vaccinated against both COVID-19 AND flu. You can get both shots in the same visit if the timing coincides!"

But beyond vaccination, we don't have many tools in our toolbox of proven treatment and prevention options ... yet. So scientists are also continuing to research how to prevent cold and flu, beyond that general guidance, and how to shorten our cases if we do fall ill.

A recent study in the journal BMJ Open discovered that zinc might be a key mineral to shorten the length and severity of respiratory tract infection symptoms—and possibly prevent them altogether.

Zinc has been shown to support the immune system and aid in healing wounds, play a role in breaking down carbs, assist in cell division and growth and affect smell and taste. It's a frequent star of many multivitamins on the market, and is also sold in nasal sprays and lozenges, such as Zicam. While most Americans score enough zinc from their diet, this study set out to determine the benefits of zinc supplements and how they might play a role in viral infections.

BTW, according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, the top food sources of zinc include:

  • Oysters
  • Beef
  • King crab
  • Lobster
  • Pork chop
  • Baked beans
  • Fortified breakfast cereal
  • Dark meat chicken
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Yogurt

This research was a review of 28 studies that included nearly 5,500 people who were at risk for or had a viral respiratory tract infection. They dove into data about zinc dosage and illness duration and measured recovery time and severity of symptoms. They also omitted any studies that used other medications as part of a treatment program. The study authors found:

  • Oral or nasal zinc supplements prevented respiratory tract infections in some subjects
  • Symptoms of these respiratory infections were about two days shorter among the zinc-takers than those who were given a placebo
  • Zinc seemed to begin reducing infection symptoms after about three days
  • Zinc didn't move the needle on average symptom severity each day

For those who don't already have a zinc deficiency, taking a supplement might help reduce your risk of viral respiratory infections or shorten them if they're already within the body. This appears to be true for cold and flu, but TBD on the COVID-19 front.

The Bottom Line

The authors conclude that for people who do not have zinc deficiency, taking zinc in supplemental form might help prevent cold and flu and shorten the duration of their symptoms.

Jennifer Hunter, Ph.D., one of the study authors, explains to Medical News Today that we're "now well into the pandemic and quickly learning that a lot of therapies that have worked for other viral infections don't necessarily work for COVID-19. We cannot assume the results from these zinc studies apply to COVID-19." And it's important to note that zinc isn't a magic bullet: "I wouldn't necessarily rush out and start taking zinc, as there is the risk of copper deficiency with ongoing use. However, I would suggest that people with chronic diseases and older adults discuss their dietary zinc intake with their health care professionals."

In the meantime, it certainly can't hurt to cover your zinc bases by incorporating these 7 immune-bolstering zinc-rich foods into your diet. And if you and your doc do decide to go the supplement route, remember that most supplements are totally unregulated, so here's the #1 way to tell if they are safe.