After more than a year and a half of living under a global pandemic, the idea of catching the flu almost feels like a distant memory. But even as life slowly begins to return to normal, the truth is that becoming infected with influenza can still be a harrowing experience. While each year changes in severity, the 2018 to 2019 flu season saw an estimated 29 million illnesses, 13 million flu-related medical visits, 380,000 flu-related hospitalizations, and 28,000 flu deaths, according to the data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As always, doctors are urging the public to get their flu shots to help shore up their immunity—especially amid concerns the flu virus could come roaring back after flu cases were tamped down by COVID-19 preventions last winter. But according to new research, there's one supplement that can help cut your risk of developing severe flu symptoms. Read on to see what you should be taking to give your body another line of defense.
Taking a zinc supplement can reduce your risk of severe flu or cold symptoms by almost 90 percent.
The latest insight comes from a meta-analysis published this month in the journal BMJ Open. In total, researchers reviewed 28 clinical trials that included 5,446 adults at risk for or infected by a viral respiratory tract infection such as the common cold or the flu. While none of the studies specifically focused on the use of zinc to prevent or shorten the length of illness, the data within included information on zinc dosage, duration of the illness, recovery time, and the severity of symptoms from the virus, Eating Well reports.
Results of the analysis found that taking zinc in the form of lozenges or nasal sprays had a noticeable effect on patients. Overall, there was a 28 percent lower risk of developing mild symptoms cold or flu symptoms, and an 87 percent lower risk of developing moderately severe symptoms while taking zinc supplements.
Zinc supplements also appear to help cold and flu symptoms go away more quickly.
Besides being able to stave off the virus potentially, the researchers also found zinc supplements could still hold a benefit for those who were already sick. Results showed that those using a zinc nasal spray or a liquid formula taken under the tongue saw their symptoms dissipate two days earlier on average than patients given a placebo.
Researchers concluded that zinc supplements could be a "viable 'natural' alternative" flu treatment.
Ultimately, the researchers conclude their findings supported the use of zinc as a way to avoid or take care of a cold or a bout with the flu. "The marginal benefits, strain specificity, drug resistance, and potential risks of other over-the-counter and prescription medications makes zinc a viable 'natural' alternative for the self-management of non-specific [respiratory tract infections]," the study authors wrote in a statement. They also added: "[Zinc] also provides clinicians with a management option for patients who are desperate for faster recovery times and might be seeking an unnecessary antibiotic prescription."
One of the study's authors also pointed out that the meta-analysis provided a critical perspective missing from many other focused studies on the use of zinc supplements in battling the flu or the common cold. "The two large trials from China found very low dose zinc nasal spray reduced the risk of clinical illness. The two smaller trials in the U.S. that evaluated the preventive effects of oral zinc excluded people who were zinc deficient," Jennifer Hunter, PhD, one of the study authors and an integrative medicine doctor Jennifer Hunter from Western Sydney University in Australia, told Medical News Today. "It is commonly thought that zinc's role in preventing and treating infections is only for people who are zinc deficient; our findings really challenge this notion."
Researchers still pointed out that it's still not clear what's the best way to take zinc.
Despite the results, the researchers were also quick to point out that even small doses of zinc can cause non-serious side effects such as nausea—and especially in the case of nasal sprays, temporary loss of smell. But the data also leaves it unclear exactly which method and which dosage is best to secure the results seen in the analysis. For now, they suggest more studies are needed on the topic.
"Clinicians and consumers need to be aware that considerable uncertainty remains regarding the clinical efficacy of different zinc formulations, doses, and administration routes," Hunter said. "At the moment there just isn't enough research to say whether a zinc nasal spray, versus a nasal gel, versus a lozenge, versus oral zinc is any better or worse than the others. Most of the trials used zinc gluconate or zinc acetate formulations, but that doesn't mean that other zinc compounds are less effective."