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There's 'not much evidence' supplements like Vitamin C, zinc help you fight cold and flu, doctor says: Try this instead

If you want something more likely to "help in shortening the duration of a viral illness," here are some ideas.

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"Weather predictor extraordinaire" Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow early Tuesday morning. If you believe in the ability of a groundhog to accurately predict the weather, that means we're in for six more weeks of winter — and with it, an extension of cold and flu season.

Americans across the country remain focused on warding off not only Covid-19 and its variants, but also winter illness like the common cold and seasonal flu. The CDC recommends precautions including mask wearing and hand washing, and has said "everyone 6 months of age and older should get an influenza (flu) vaccine every season with rare exception."

Common consumer advice focuses on steps we can take to "boost our immune systems" — for example, eat nutrient rich foods like leafy greens and salmon, load up on citrus fruits, and get a good night's sleep.

But if those efforts fail and you do wake up one morning with dreaded symptoms such as a headache, fever, or scratchy throat, it's likely that friends and family will tell you fight back with supplements like vitamin C, zinc, and elderberry.

Those remedies and preventatives don't come cheap, and you might be wondering if the cost is worth it: A 90-day supply of Vitamin C capsules range in price from $8 to $40, zinc lozenges are about $15 for a pack of 25, and elderberry gummies cost around $16 for 30 servings.

Dr. Davis Liu, chief clinical officer of Lemonaid Health, says your money is best spent elsewhere: "There is not much evidence that any of these supplements really help in shortening the duration of a viral illness."

The prescription he says will be more beneficial: "Rest, plenty of fluids, and if you are able to, have homemade chicken noodle soup."

Vitamin C vs. the common cold: What studies show

In 1970, American chemist Linus Pauling claimed that Vitamin C "prevents and alleviates episodes of the common cold," and consumers have been running with that claim ever since.

Today, you can find Vitamin C marketed alongside over-the-counter cold and flu medicines — for example, Vicks recently debuted combo packs of its DayQuil and NyQuil cold remedies with a Super C supplement.

But a review of recent studies in the Scandinavian Journal of Infectious Diseases found that there's no consistent proof that Vitamin C does anything at all to reduce the length or severity of the common cold.

Zinc, which you can also find stocked on shelves with cold and flu medications, "is of uncertain benefit," adds Liu. And some zinc products could be harmful: He cites an FDA warning from 2009 about zinc nasal sprays, which "can cause loss of smell, permanently."

Elderberry 'won't really hurt,' but may not help, either

You've may have seen elderberry — in the form of drops, gummies and syrup — alongside other cold remedies at the pharmacy. Its berries and flowers are packed with antioxidants that proponents say provide an immune system boost. It is thought that they can also help tame inflammation.

While Liu says more rigorous study is needed to know for sure if taking elderberry is beneficial when you're battling cold or flu, it is a supplement he himself takes.

He's "not clear it helps," he says, "but [it] won't really hurt."

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