Oranges are in focus.
The verdict is still out when it comes to vitamin C and its effects on the common cold. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

It’s cold and flu season.

That means there are plenty of people out there right now wishing they had a medicine that could shorten the length of their illness—or better yet, they’d like something to prevent it altogether.

Is that too tall an order? Yes.

Despite all the medical breakthroughs of modern society—3D printable heart models, wearable health sensors and ultra-tiny pacemakers—the world of medicine has yet to find a cure for the common cold.

And the fact is, studies offer mixed results when it comes to understanding the true power of zinc and vitamin C in fighting cold and flu viruses. Over-the-counter medicines that claim to combat cold and flu viruses often contain either of these ingredients.

But can the oft-hyped zinc or vitamin C provide a legitimate defense? Spectrum Health clinical pharmacy director Margo Bowman says the verdict is still out.

“For the most part, from what I have been able to find, there aren’t fantastic studies showing these drugs are fully effective in fighting a cold,” Bowman said. “There is no conclusive evidence whether they’re effective or not.”

Some studies suggest oral zinc may slightly reduce the severity of a cold, Bowman said, but other reports indicate it won’t help.

While the reviews on zinc are mixed, researchers do believe it may be more effective than vitamin C when it comes to fighting a cold. But even then zinc’s effects appear to be minimal, Bowman said.

Reports from government health agencies are equally cautious.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, vitamin C cannot prevent a cold but it’s likely to slightly reduce the length and severity. And while zinc might treat a cold, it can also cause some adverse side effects.

On the other hand, a study in the Journal of International Medical Research suggested a combination of zinc and vitamin C could in fact provide some relief from the common cold.

The human body needs vitamin C, but in most cases people can get the required daily dose by eating healthy meals, Bowman said.

“You don’t have to buy extra supplements as long as you’re eating a healthy diet,” she said.

Vitamin C is readily available in fruits such as oranges and in vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.

For those who feel they aren’t getting enough from food sources, a supplement won’t hurt, Bowman said.

At the end of the day, if someone wants to take an extra dose of vitamin C or zinc, it’s a personal choice. There is research to suggest it’s an acceptable choice and there is also research that says it won’t make a difference.

The best way to prevent a cold is to wash your hands frequently and eat a well-balanced diet, Bowman said.

The best way to avoid the flu, meanwhile, is to get a vaccination each year, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.