I’ve had a cold since Sunday and it’s pretty miserable. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing to do but wait it out. I’ve tried various treatments for symptoms, with limited results. Looking through the rack at the drugstore the other day, trying to pick up some cough drops and pain relievers, I got to wondering about the effectiveness of one particular chemical palliative: zinc.
You’ve probably seen zinc lozenges before, alongside the camphorated cough drops at your local pharmacy. I’ve used them for sore throats since I was a kid and they’ve always seemed to be at least helpful, if not rejuvenating. How much of this effect is real I’ve never known. But this illness has given me a good incentive to find out.
It would seem that the main purpose of zinc is its use as a supposed remedy, possibly shortening the duration of colds by a few days. This has never been my experience, and my experience is pretty well backed up by the data. Looking at blog posts by Dr. Steven Novella and recommendations from the Mayo Clinic and Harvard’s Health Blog, among others, positive reports about the benefits of zinc supplements have been weak at best. And, importantly, there are serious drawbacks to using zinc: you could damage or even lose your sense of smell, possibly permanently. That’s a real bummer. Studies have shown that hot liquids can be effective in helping to make you feel better, though they won’t cure a virus. But you won’t be able to taste any warm soup, tea, or hot toddies very well if you’ve clobbered your sinuses with zinc.
I guess I may have been fooled by my own hopefulness and ill desperation. It seem the best advice remains for avoiding and dealing with a cold remains the same: stay nourished, wash your hands regularly, avoid sick people if you’re well and avoid getting other people sick if you’re under the weather, get your flu shots, and if you come down with a cold enjoy something warm and tasty.