Zinc and the Common Cold

The Rhinovirus

Photo Credit: The Wikipedia
Photo Credit: The Wikipedia

Saturday evening, I started to experience the familiar itchy feeling in my throat. I also felt a little woozy, and I thought I might have a fever. I started taking a zinc supplement. It was a Zicam Lozenge that dissolved under my tongue. It was vaguely almond flavored, like marzipan. The next morning I had a runny, drippy nose. I kept taking the zinc supplement. By Sunday night, I no longer had a runny nose, nor was my nose stuffy, and I wasn't coughing. (In my case, I usually have a cough after the runny nose subsides. I have allergies and am given to asthmatic symptoms every time I get a cold.) I kept taking the Zinc supplement every three hours when I was awake. By Monday morning, I was symptom free. It's as if the cold had never been there.

There was no post nasal drip. There was no dry cough or wheeze. The skin around my nose was undamaged. (Usually it flakes for a few days after a cold.) Nobody could tell I had even been sick.

This is a treatment that no doctor has ever recommended to me. It seems to work! It is not a cure, but it drastically reduces the symptoms. For me, it's the symptoms that matter! It's not what the cold virus does to my body that bothers me -- it's what my body does to itself when it detects the virus.

So, how exactly does Zinc work in combating the symptoms of the common cold? Does it boost our immune system, as is claimed? Or does it calm our body so that it doesn't overreact to the presence of the cold virus?

Viruses, Immunity and Auto-Immunity

A virus is not considered to be a form of life by most scientists today. Why? Because it has no metabolism of its own. In layman's terms, it doesn't eat or defecate. All it does is replicate, inside your own cells. But since replicating is one of the most important functions of a living entity, it's very, very close to being alive. In fact, viruses may be how life on earth began!

Like crystals, viruses spontaneously assemble. They have genes, they have structure, and they are self-replicating, but they are not alive. Outside a living cell, they do not exist at all. There is no fossil evidence for the evolution of viruses, so we don't know how they evolved. They thrive within organisms as parasites, but it may be that some previous version of these self-assembling organic building blocks is what what eventually led to life as we know it.

Smart versus Stupid Parasites

We tend to think about disease in very self-centered terms. If we ascribe a purpose to a parasite, we often think that it is out to get us -- that its goal in life is to harm people or to kill them. Now if we look at this from the point of view of the parasite, that probably isn't the goal at all. The goal, to the extent that it makes sense to think in these teleological terms, is for the parasite to prosper and replicate itself. In other words: be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth!

So, what is the best way for a parasite to achieve this goal? To kill the host or to co-exist with the host?

A really smart virus is virtually harmless. It lives on us. It pilfers a little of our life energy, but it does not take too much. It knows not to be greedy. It doesn't foul its own nest. It does not destroy its environment. It is eco-friendly.

Smart versus Stupid Hosts

Some people have really overactive immune systems. (Sadly, I count myself among them.) These people's bodies are so offended by the presence of an intruder, that they would rather destroy themselves than share their resources.

What is a fever? It is a high temperature generated by our immune system in order to drive out a parasite. But if left unchecked, a fever can kill the host. So then the intruder is driven out or destroyed -- but what a price to pay!

Most of the symptoms of the common cold, including fever, runny nose and sore throat are the result not of the actions of the virus that is replicating itself in our cells -- but of our immune system's anguished efforts to destroy the virus or slow down its progress.

What I would dearly love to know is this: if the symptoms of the cold that we are aware of are not the result of the actions of the cold virus, what would the cold virus do to us, if our body didn't react so strongly? What would that look like?

Palliative Care

Palliative care is any course of treatment whose purpose and effect is to reduce the symptoms of a disease, without curing it or attacking its source. When we take fever reducing medication (aspirin, acetimeniphin, ibuprofen or some other product) during the course of cold, we are engaged in a palliative treatment. The disease is not caused by the fever, and reducing the fever will not make the disease go away. It may, however, save us from the excesses of our immune system.

So what happens is basically this:

  1. Your immune system detects the presence of a virus.
  2. In order to expell or destroy the virus, the system increases body temperature to the point where neither you nor the virus can function.
  3. Noticing that your body is about to self destruct, you reduce the fever by artificial means.
  4. Meanwhile, the virus either goes away -- or, and this is more likely, your body makes peace with it. (Making peace may mean that the virus continues to lurk in some of your cells but does not replicate itself at too high a rate so as not to disturb the normal functioning of your body.)


There is something counterproductive in the way medical intevention works to undo the effects that the immune system deems necessary for self-protection. If the high fever is really a useful strategy against invaders, are we sabotaging our immune function by reducing the fever? Or is the high fever already a sign that the immune system is in trouble and resorting to questionable tactics, like a retreating army that burns a village in order to "save" it from the enemy?

To think about this problem in dispassionate terms, we also have to consider the enemy's strategy. What will the virus do to us if left unchecked?

A virus that destroys every available host is doomed to extinction along with the hosts. That's why viruses still in existence have this strategy: they kill the hosts whose immune systems will not compromise with them. They keep alive specimens who somehow manage to reach a truce.

The HIV virus is a case in point. While the majority of people who were infected with HIV when it first surfaced eventually succumbed to AIDS -- acquired immune deficiency syndrome, some people never got AIDs, even though they were infected with HIV. Is it because their immune system was more active? NO! Quite the contrary. These were people whose immune system just didn't overreact to HIV. They took the whole thing in their stride. They didn't sabotage themselves.

It's the people whose immune system engaged in a fight to the death with HIV that eventually lost all immune function and then succumbed to other diseases.

Illustration Credit: The Wikipedia
Illustration Credit: The Wikipedia

Autoimmune Disease and Viruses

Some viruses are responsible for immune system malfunctions, but they are not solely responsible. It's a question of how the immune system responds to the presence of the virus. I've already mentioned HIV, which can cause a complete neutralization of the immune system in people with normally strong immune reactions. There are also viruses that cause a different immune system malfunction: autoimmune disease. In autoimmune disease, the system fails to recognize the difference between a foreign invader and a normal part of the body. It fails to distinguish between "self" and "other." It then goes on to destroy its own organs.

Here are a couple of viruses, together with the autoimmune diseases they are said to induce:

  • Coxsackie B -- B4 strain may cause diabetes mellitus Type 1 in people with a genetic predisposition
  • Human papilloma virus is said to be responsible for cervical cancer


How can a virus cause a systemic or organic disease in an infected person? The way it works is that some part of the virus mimics some normal molecule found in the body, and in the process of developing an antigen against the invading virus, the immune system creates an antibody that attacks its own working parts.

This is why a little less immune function is sometimes better than too much immune function. It is also why a simple viral infection is nothing to sneeze at. They can change your life.

Another part of the story is that the complete eradication of parasites is not always the best policy. In Western countries, internal parasites have pretty much been done away. This is causally linked, according to recent studies with autoimmune diseases of the digestive tract. Apparently, parasites, in the interest of their own survival, helped us to avoid an overactive immune reaction that can lead to things such ulcers and crohn's disease.

It could well be that the medical imperative to eradicate all disease, by the combined use of vaccines and antibiotics, has also led to a situation where the immune system has insufficient experience in responding to active viruses.

A third explanation for the rise of immune system dysfunction may be as a result of the reduction of infant mortality in the industrialized countries of the west. It could be that those people who are most vulnerable to immune system difficulties would not have survived early childhood under more natural conditions, and that this is why populations that receive less medical care are by and large untouched by the autoimmune diseases that are afflicting the developed world.

Distinguishing Immunity to Specific Diseases from Immune System Function

Sometimes, especially when a disease has been raging in a certain geographical region for many generations, there will emerge individuals who are immune to the disease in question. This has happened with malaria and it seems to be in the process of happening with AIDS. Some individuals do not have receptors where the virus can take hold, and so they are immune to the virus in question. Where the disease decimates entire families, individuals without the receptor sites flourish, reproduce and are more numerous in each succeeding generation. This is an example of how natural selection works. It is not an example of improved immune system function.

Immune system function is a generalized ability to fight intruders. It is not about immunity to any particular disease. When someone is immune to a disease due to lack of receptor sites, the immune system never even comes into play.

However, there is another kind of immunity that is due to being less reactive to the presence of intruders. There are degrees to which the immune system may react to threats. Being under-reactive may jeopardize one by allowing a disease to flourish, but being over-reactive is also not good, because the immune system can harm as well as protect us.

Even among plants, scientists are finding that reducing reactivity may have health benefits. In Columbia, Missouri, recent research has shown that reducing reactivity leads to higher crop yields. From the Scienceblog linked above: "A plant's immune system protects the plant from harmful pathogens. If the system overreacts to pathogens, it can stunt plant growth and reduce seed production."

So how reactive is your system? Would you thrive more if you reacted less to each intruder?

Remedies for the Common Cold

If you have a cold and you go see the doctor in United States today, you will be told it's a virus and they will give you nothing to help, leaving you with over-the-counter medications, most of which are really just palliatives. If your physician detects a bacterial infection (such as strep), then you may be prescribed antibiotics. Antibiotics, as their name suggests, are anti-life, and bacteria just barely qualifies as life, but viruses do not.

The zinc lozenges that I took for my cold were not palliatives, even though they did not attack the virus and they did reduce my symptoms. So the question is: what exactly did they do for me?

Aspirin would have reduced my fever. Antihistamines would have reduced my rhinorrhea. These palliatives would have worked only so long as they were in my bloodstream, and I would have to take more every so often. But the Zicam lozenges that I took didn't work that way. They did not target a particular symptom or block a specific immune reaction. They helped me get better faster.

So how did that work?

Zinc helps improve white blood cell count. It has been shown to improve recovery times not only for the common cold and the flu, but also for far more serious conditions such as pneumonia. Even for those patients who are prescribed antibiotics, if zinc is taken in conjunction with the antibiotic treatment, healing occurs more quickly.

It's no use taking a multivitamin to get your zinc, though, as this will not allow proper absorption. Zinc lonzenges must be sucked, not swallowed, and it is the time that the zinc spends in the oral cavity that allows for proper absorption.

Lowered Resistance and Immune Reaction

The common cold is caused by a virus. Everybody knows that. Everybody also knows that if you have consistently failed to get enough sleep or you have been exposed to below freezing conditions with insufficient clothing, then you are likely to catch a cold.

Your doctor will tell you that you can't "catch a cold" from being out in the cold. It takes a virus. But experiments have shown otherwise. People do get cold symptoms when they are exposed to the elements with insufficient protection. A sharp drop in body temperature can induce a cold. This can happen to a person who is isolated from any living thing that might transmit a new virus.

How does that work? I think that the only reasonable explanation is that all of us carry cold viruses inside us all the time. We may even be born with them. When we are healthy and strong, they don't proliferate and our body does not overeact to their presence. When we are down, stressed out, exhausted, depressed or in any other way vulnerable, that's when they get out of hand, and our immune system gets out of hand, too.

It's a two way street. It's not just what the virus does. It's also how we handle it.

My guess is that zinc helps us handle it a little better.

Disclaimer

I am not a physician. This article is not intended as medical advice or a prescription of treatment. For diagnosis of your own symptoms, please consult a medical professional or other healer. Information in this article is of a general nature. Please be advised that zinc, like every mineral, can be toxic in high dosages. Please read instructions on any product for proper dosage or consult your physician.



(c) 2009 Aya Katz

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Comments 27 comments

nhkatz profile image

nhkatz 7 years ago from Bloomington, Indiana

Great hub.

Better living through the placebo effect ...


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thanks, Nets, The placebo effect is helpful in more ways than people have given it credit for. For instance, the body can be trained to react a certain way to medication administered by injection. When the medication in the injection is reduced and then completely removed, the injection can still have the same effect. The effect, after all, is what is important.

See this article from Newsweek:

http://www.newsweek.com/id/120094


livelonger profile image

livelonger 7 years ago from San Francisco

Great hub - was wondering why those zinc lozenges worked for me, too.


F L Light 7 years ago

I do not see such well-written articles in health magazines, where editors are alterers of truth. Are the lozenges 10 mg?


Samina 7 years ago

Excellent first hand experience on Zinc and common cold....I could try as me too suffer the same problem....cold leads to asthamatic condition...this could work wonders for me..Thank you Dr Katz. Samina


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor

The implications of this are fascinating. I'm going to try zinc the next time I feel a cold coming on. Thanks for a great read.


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States

I've seen zinc work for many people. Can't say for myself because I'm weird I guess, I probably haven't had a cold or the flu in over ten years and if I do get something like that it's so mild that it's gone the next day. I did listen to a radio show last week about a zinc based cold nasal spray that has supposedly been linked to the loss of smell for some users. My thoughts at the time ran along the line of perhaps it had more to do with over use or the method of getting the zinc.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Livelonger, thanks for your comment. Glad this works for you, too!


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

F.L. Light, thanks for the high praise!

The Zicam lozenges I used were Rapidmelts, 25 to a bottle, and they contained two parts Zincum Aceticum to one part Zincum gluconicum. Oddly enough, the packaging does not indicate how much in each tablet...


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Samina, thanks for your comment. Hope this works for you!


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Teresa, thanks for dropping by. Let me know if it works for you.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Jerilee, sounds as if you have a pretty good immune system to begin with!

I have seen the inhalers or nasal sprays for Zinc, but have not tried them. Thanks for the warning. I'll stay away from them until we learn more about the problem.


Misha profile image

Misha 7 years ago from DC Area

Umm, definitely something to ponder about. Thanks Aya :)


maggs224 profile image

maggs224 7 years ago from Sunny Spain

What an interesting and informative hub, I have learned a lot from this hub, I will be on the look out for some of these lozenges though I don't get many colds and normally those I have had are usually mild but the way you have explained everything has made me think about colds and illness in a different way.


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country

Beef is an excellent source of zinc-- I always enjoy a nice steak when I'm strengthening my immune system.

I am interested in the almond-tasting zinc lozenges. The ones I tried tasted unpleasantly metallic.

Overall a very interesting hub. I have always been pretty healthy and 'medicines' are a last resort for me.


F L Light 7 years ago

According to this site http://www.resource4defectivedrugs.com/topics/zica...

the Zincam lozenges (6 a day) provide 80 mg.The lawyers at this site claim there are deleterious effects from -

Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Gel

-Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Swabs

-Zicam Cold Remedy Swabs, Kids Size*

but not from Zincam lozenges.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Misha, thanks for dropping by!

Maggs, thanks for the comment. It sounds like you have a pretty healthy immune system and may not need any help with it.

Rochelle, thanks for mentioning beef as a good source of zinc. I enjoy a good steak now and again, although when I am sick, broth is more in line with my needs.

F.L. Light thanks for the link and the added information. It might be that administering the zinc directly into the nasal passage is not such a great idea. Until we know more about it, I will stay away from the nasal applicators and swabs.

 


Erick Smart 7 years ago

It does seem to work, I cannot remember the last time I had a cold.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Erick Smart, thanks for the input. Are you taking zinc as a preventive measure?


Research Analyst profile image

Research Analyst 7 years ago

This is a great hub on explaining how exactly Zinc works in combating the symptoms of the common cold, I have used garlic tablets in the past and now I will add Zicam Lozenge to my bag of home remedies. Thanks!


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Research Analyst, thanks! Garlic is said to be a good natural antibiotic, which can come in handy if a cold morphs into a bacterial infection. Let me know if you have good experience with zinc.


Chili63 profile image

Chili63 7 years ago

As winter hits my part of the planet early (yes we had snow on October 9 in Winnipeg, Canada!) I'm already thinking about cold preventative measures. As one of the comments mentioned, the zinc I've tried had a horrible taste. I'll try your recommendation and see if I have a better experience. This was a fascinating look at something that's usually only mentioned in the news in sound bites, without really explaining how it works. Thanks!


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Chili63, thanks for your comment! It must be great to have snow already! Our leaves are just beginning to turn here in the Ozarks.

I'm not sure how effective taking zinc long in advance of a cold will be as a preventative measure. It's all a question of the body's healthy balance. If the body becomes accustomed to a certain level of zinc, it may make adjustments that will render the zinc ineffective.

I think that taking zinc can nip a nascent viral infection in the bud. However, I haven't seen too much research about the long term effects of just building up zinc levels over a period of time.

Let me know how it works!


Chili63 profile image

Chili63 7 years ago

Good to know. In the past I've used echinacea at the first sign of a cold. Do you think it would it be detrimental to use it together with zinc?


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Chili63, I think it would be fine to use both echinacea and zinc. I believe some of the commercial products available include both. The important thing would be not to overdo it, and to make sure that the dosage you use is something your body can tolerate.


AdamGee profile image

AdamGee 6 years ago

thanks for the advice! I keep telling myself I'm not fighting this cold, I'm uh working with it. So I'll try to give it some zinc and see if it calms down a bit. Great article, very well written and informative.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

AdamGee, thanks! I hope the cold cooperates and decides to work with you as well!

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