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Vitamin C and the common cold

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Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is an essential nutrient found in fruits and vegetables. Having vitamin C in your diet helps you maintain healthy skin, blood vessels, bones and cartilage. Some people also believe getting lots of vitamin C can help you avoid colds, or quickly cure cold symptoms when they arise.

According to the NHS, there’s not enough evidence to show that vitamin C is an effective treatment for the common cold. However, we do know that a severe deficiency can make it harder for our bodies to fight off infection. This means that, over time, not getting enough vitamin C may increase your risk of getting sick. 

Regardless, there are many benefits to having a good vitamin C intake, which is why it’s important to try and get the recommended amount each day.

How much vitamin C do I need to stay healthy?

The NHS recommends that adults aged between 19 and 64 should have 40 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C each day.

To give you an idea of how much that is, here’s the vitamin C content of some popular fruits and vegetables, according to Diabetes.co.uk:

  • 100g of orange contains 52mg
  • 100g of strawberries contains 57mg
  • 100g of kiwi fruit contains 59mg
  • 100g of broccoli contains 79mg
  • 100g of red cabbage contains 55mg

Generally, it’s best to eat these kinds of foods raw, as cooking reduces the vitamin C content by about one third. This is why oranges are a popular way of getting your daily vitamin C. Read our guide to discover more foods high in vitamin C.

Should I take vitamin C supplements?

As you can see from the above, it’s not hard to get your daily dose of vitamin C through your diet. In addition to the foods already listed, vitamin C is also found in grapefruit, blackcurrants, blueberries, melon, spinach, peppers, tomatoes, brussels sprouts and even potatoes.

Of course, you may still struggle to get enough through your diet alone, and might want to take vitamin C supplements. According to the NHS, taking up to 1,000 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C supplements each day is unlikely to cause harm. Taking more than this might cause unpleasant symptoms like stomach pain and diarrhoea.

In general, it’s a good idea to speak to your GP before you start taking supplements, especially if you think you might have a vitamin C deficiency (scurvy).

Should I take vitamin C before and during a cold?

It’s up to you! As we’ve explained, the NHS doesn’t consider vitamin C to be effective at preventing or treating cold symptoms. However, vitamin C does help:

  • Protect cells
  • Keep cells healthy
  • Wound healing

Some studies have suggested that taking vitamin C on a regular basis before you get ill might reduce the length and severity of your symptoms.

Whatever you decide, just make sure that you stick to the guidelines set out by the NHS:

  • Aim to have 40 milligrams of vitamin C each day
  • Try to get your vitamin C from fruits and vegetables
  • Don’t take more than 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C supplements each day
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Other tips for preventing and treating the common cold

If you want to avoid getting sick, it’s all about practising good hygiene:

  • Wash your hands regularly with warm water and soap, especially if you’ve been in a big crowd of people, on public transport, or spending time with someone who is sick
  • Don’t share household items like towels or cups with someone who has a cold
  • Try to avoid touching your face (especially your eyes and nose) when you’re around someone who is sick, or you’re on public transport

The NHS also recommends “staying fit and healthy” which means eating a varied and balanced diet, exercising regularly, and cutting back on harmful habits like smoking.

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If you do get sick, the best thing to do is stay home and wait for your symptoms to pass. Remember, the common cold is a virus – this means you can’t treat it with antibiotics, which is why a trip to your GP is usually unnecessary.

While you’re recovering, do the following:

  • Get plenty of rest and sleep
  • Stay warm
  • Drink lots of fluids (e.g. water, squash) to avoid getting dehydrated
  • Use painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen if you have a fever or any aches and pains
  • Decongestants may help if you have a blocked nose
  • Gargle with salt water if you have a sore throat

Lastly, if you’re taking combination cold remedies, make sure you don’t “double up” by taking paracetamol or ibuprofen at the same time. If you’re not sure, always check with your local pharmacist.