Are Zinc and Echinacea *Really* a Cold-Fighting Power Couple?

Photo: Stocksy/Bonnin Studio

The flu may have made the most headlines this winter, but colds are practically a seasonal rite of passage. Luckily, a quick consultation with Dr. Google will bring up all sorts of suggestions for relieving coughing and congestion—one of which is stocking up on zinc and echinacea.

But if you feel the telltale signs of an impending winter cold, one doctor says you may want to think twice before turning to this particular duo. According to Patricia Salber, MD—founder of The Doctor Weighs Ina blog dedicated to evidence-based healthcare intel—the mythic pairing of zinc and echinacea is way overhyped for its cold-fighting abilities.

Mind blown? Well, it turns out that one-half of this so-called power couple actually is legit, while the other one's efficacy is a bit more questionable—a fact that will likely save you some cash on your next drugstore run. (Score!)

Keep reading for Dr. Salber's take on why zinc and echinacea aren't, in fact, the ultimate cold-fighting dream team.

Zinc and Echinacea aren't the best way to fight a cold.
Photo: Stocksy/Lumina

The truth about taking zinc and echinacea for a cold

Although echinacea is anecdotally recognized for its cold-busting powers, there's little solid research backing up its reputation, says Dr. Salber. "A 2015 Cochrane systematic review of medical literature found that echinacea products did not show benefits for treating colds," she points out. The review determined that cold risk is reduced by just 10-20 percent when echinacea's used preventatively; when used for treatment, only one of seven trials reviewed indicated a significant benefit of echinacea versus a placebo.

That said, Dr. Salber admits this particular review wasn't perfect. "They note that the amount of echinacea in different product formulations is variable, so they can't say for sure that there isn't some weak benefit from some echinacea products," she says. "Studying the impact of dietary supplements can be problematic because not only the dose, but the quantity of the active ingredients varies by product."

Why the ambiguity? Because echinacea is considered to be a dietary supplement, the studies are not as closely regulated or standardized as those involving FDA-regulated medications. According to Dr. Salber, this makes it difficult to get a clear verdict on the efficacy of echinacea, if there is any at all.

"Zinc used alone has been well studied and found to reduce the duration and severity of cold symptoms."

But while echinacea's immune-boosting cred seems to be up for debate, Dr. Salber does believe that zinc on its own is handy for making a cold less miserable.

"Zinc is an essential micronutrient important to normal function of the immune system as well as growth and neurodevelopment. Zinc used alone has been well studied and found to reduce the duration and severity of cold symptoms, " she says.

The doctor notes that, like echinacea, zinc is a dietary supplement and its studies are also not FDA-regulated. Because of this, there's no accepted standard for how much zinc is necessary to help you fight a cold, or how much time zinc supplements can really shave off of your cold. All anyone seems to know for sure is that it's beneficial to the immune system.

So taking a zinc supplement won't hurt you, and it may even be mildly effective at helping you cope with your cold—but a good old-fashioned day of resting is probably your best bet for getting through a sick day like a champ.

Obsessed with staying illness-free this season? Here's what to know about the UV light that may kill the flu virus without harming your health. And if you think rest is the best medicine, this is how to biohack your sleep, according to Robin Berzin, MD. 

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