How to Use Zinc Lozenges to Prevent the Common Cold

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Zinc Pills in Medicine:

Zinc has long been known to play a part in immune function, but several scientific studies have also found that it can be used to fight the common cold.

Its effect on cold viruses was first discovered by accident in an immunosuppressed cancer patient. The patient was a young girl undergoing chemotherapy and taking zinc pills to combat the damage chemo was causing to her immune system. Because of her suppressed system, normal colds could cause big problems for her. To boost her immune function the doctors were having her swallow zinc pills, but one day when she was coming down with a fresh cold she dissolved the daily zinc pill in her mouth instead of swallowing it. Her doctors were surprised when the cold went away, and they guessed that dissolving the pill in her mouth was the reason.

Further studies have backed up this theory that zinc pills dissolved in the mouth help shorten the duration and severity of the common cold[1].

In vitro studies have found that high levels of zinc interfere with cold virus' ability to multiply. Since the cold virus lives and reproduces in your throat, bathing your throat in zinc helps kill the virus. If the zinc pill is swallowed it gets digested, goes into your bloodstream, and spreads out all over your body so that only a very small amount gets to your throat[1].

A further study into the effectiveness of zinc gluconate products discovered that the flavor additives sorbitol, mannitol, and citric acid bind to free zinc ions in the mouth, deactivating them[4]. Many popular available products disregard these findings as vitamins and minerals are not examined as treatments by the FDA.

Cold viruses replicate most the day before and the day after your cold symptoms start. Since zinc works by suppressing cold virus replication it is most effective when taken immediately after the first symptoms are noticed. Since preventing colds requires catching them early, zinc lozenges make a strategic addition to your purse or first aid kit.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Regulation:

Zinc lozenges and pills haven't been reviewed by the FDA as a treatment for colds. Since zinc is a mineral that we all need as part of a healthy diet, the FDA classifies it as a homeopathic treatment. Homeopathy is an alternative medical system that is regulated by the FDA, however, the FDA does not evaluate homeopathic treatments for safety or effectiveness[3]. For this reason zinc is currently in limbo. The FDA has issued warnings about, but not expressly banned, zinc nasal spray, and it hasn’t evaluated zinc lozenges for effectiveness against cold viruses. Therefore the duty falls on you as the consumer to make informed choices.

How to Use:

Do not take zinc on an empty stomach as it will cause nausea. Take 1, 23mg lozenge every 2 hours beginning as soon as possible after you first notice cold symptoms appear. Dissolve the lozenge in your mouth. Do not swallow it. Swallowing the lozenge won’t hurt you, but it will be less effective at fighting the cold virus.

Taking excess zinc is fine over the short term (about 1 week), but zinc shouldn’t be used as a long term supplement (6 months+) because it can interfere with the way your body uses other nutrients like copper[1].

Do NOT use zinc nasal sprays. The FDA has issued a warning about using intranasal zinc sprays because of evidence that it can permanently decrease or destroy a person’s sense of smell. Zinc lozenges and dietary zinc are specifically not included in this warning[2].

Side effects:

While zinc lozenges do not have any severe side effects, some mild ones have been reported.

  1. Mouth irritation
  2. A metallic aftertaste
    • The dissolvable lozenges with honey do not have this problem
  3. An upset stomach
    • Zinc taken on an empty stomach will cause nausea
  4. Problems with copper uptake after longterm use (6 months)
    • Copper is an essential trace mineral in a healthy diet

Tips:

  1. It’s important to take zinc as soon as possible when you first notice cold symptoms. While it will still help during the middle of a cold, it’s most effective when taken early and can actually prevent the cold entirely.
  2. It’s not necessary to take the lozenges at night when you’re sleeping.
  3. Zinc has not been shown to have any effect on headache or fever

Summary:

  • Zinc is most effective when dissolved in the mouth as soon as cold symptoms appear
  • Do NOT use zinc nasal sprays as they can cause anosmia
  • Side effects can be avoided with proper precautions

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About Peter Oldani - Author of Inside First Aid

About the author

Peter Oldani graduated college with a B.S. in biomedical engineering, worked as an EMT to gain hands on experience in emergency medicine and completed active shooter training as part of New York State’s initiative to prepare civilian organizations for disaster response.