Mythbusters: Does Vitamin C Really Help?

Vitamin C has long been touted for its supposed ability to treat the common cold. When sickness sets in, many of us immediately turn to vitamin C products such as supplement pills, juices, and cough drops. But does vitamin C really help us prevent and recover from the cold? Or is it simply popular due to a widespread misbelief?

Most scientists agree that vitamin C is not an effective treatment for the common cold. In a study by researchers at the University of Toronto, subjects were divided into two groups: an experimental group that received vitamin C pills at the onset of cold symptoms, and a control group that received placebo pills. After several months, the researchers assessed the effectiveness of the pills based on the number of colds and days of sickness experienced by individuals in each group. They found that participants who had received the vitamin C pills were not significantly healthier than those who took the placebos. Numerous other studies have confirmed this result, which leads us to question — why does the myth of vitamin C as a healing agent persist?

Today’s popular belief that vitamin C can treat the common cold originated from claims made by influential American chemist Linus Pauling during the 1960s. Pauling said that after regularly taking high doses of vitamin C, he felt “livelier and healthier” and no longer experienced cold symptoms. His book on the subject, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, became an instant bestseller. By the mid-1970s, an estimated 50 million Americans were using vitamin C to treat colds, and drugstore sales of vitamin C products had quadrupled.

That vitamin C is good for you is not unfounded. It is an essential nutrient for keeping our bodies healthy: Vitamin C is a natural antioxidant, and it is needed for the growth of tissues in the body such as skin, blood vessels, and bone. It is also essential in the synthesis of collagen, a critical component of connective tissue that helps heal wounds. Citrus fruits, red and green peppers, watermelon, and leafy greens are among the best sources of vitamin C.

The University of Toronto study found some notable benefits of vitamin C as well. Subjects who received vitamin C pills took approximately 30 fewer disability days off from work compared to those who did not take the pills. According to the researchers, one possible explanation is that vitamin C lowers the severity of cold symptoms, such as chills and coughs. Still, more research would be needed to confirm this theory. Additional evidence suggests that soldiers, professional athletes, and others who undergo highly stressful situations could receive an immune system boost from vitamin C. In one study, subjects in a high-stress subgroup who took vitamin C supplements experienced a 50 percent reduction in incidence of the common cold.

But these findings do not support vitamin C as an effective cold treatment. In fact, at least 15 other studies can corroborate the results published by University of Toronto researchers, debunking the vitamin C myth by uncovering evidence against it. At the University of Maryland, researchers recruited healthy volunteers and gave them either vitamin C or placebo pills. They then infected both sets of volunteers with a cold virus and found that all of the volunteers developed colds with similar symptoms and durations. As a consequence of this study and other related research, leading medical advisory groups including the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, and the American Dietetic Association do not recommend supplemental vitamin C to prevent or treat colds.

But there are still plenty of effective ways to cope with the cold season. Get adequate sleep, drink fluids, eat nutritious meals, and manage stress — all of these habits contribute to long-term good health and proper immune functioning. Washing hands frequently and avoiding close contact with people who are sick can help prevent the spread of germs. Some studies also indicate that frequent exercise stimulates the movement of immune cells through the body, which fortifies the immune system’s defenses.

Despite the myth deeply-entrenched in our culture, vitamin C is not a go-to solution for the common cold. The human body and its relationship to nutrition are far too complex for a single vitamin to cure sickness. When the cold hits, an ideal solution might just be the traditional one: sit under a blanket with hot tea and chicken noodle soup, reading comic books and letting the sickness run its course.


Cover Image: Many people take vitamin C as a way to prevent and treat the common cold. But is this practice grounded in science, or popular culture? Image courtesy of HealthTap.