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Chicken soup, vitamin C and the common cold

By Jeffrey M. Kagan, M.D. [November 07 2013]

Many of us have grown up hearing various phrases related to the common cold, with some considered myths. Here are two common thoughts about the cold, coated with a dose of reality.

Does chicken soup help to cure the common cold?
The body's response to many infections involves a common inflammatory response in that a type of white blood cells known as neutrophils are attracted to the infected region. This process is called neutrophil chemotaxis and with a cold, neutophils will travel to the nasal, sinus and other upper respiratory passages. While neutrophils deliver chemicals that help to resolve the infectious process, which is good, they also cause inflammation, which is not good. Chicken soup broth and each of its ingredients separately, except the actual chicken, have been found to inhibit neutrophil chemotaxis.

Does taking vitamin C prevent or shorten length of the common cold?
Oranges and orange juice are rich in ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C. There has been controversy in the scientific community about the therapeutic value of vitamin C. (While growing up, my mother and grandmother preached that taking a daily dose of vitamin C would prevent a cold; read on as in some cases, there is a grain of truth to that belief.)

Researchers looked at 72 different controlled experimental trials studying if taking vitamin C prevents or shortens the common cold and a summary of the results was published in January 2013 in the Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews. Five trials looked at extreme physical activities like marathon running, skiing, and soldiers on subarctic exercises. Results indicated a 52 percent lower risk of catching a cold for those who took vitamin C and were involved in extreme physical activities. Twenty nine trials showed only a 3 percent lower risk of catching a cold for most people taking vitamin C. Thirty-one trials studying whether vitamin C shortened duration of cold symptoms showed an 8 percent shorter duration of symptoms for adults and a 14 percent shorter duration for kids. Seven trials showed no benefits if you do not start taking the vitamin C until after you get sick. The research shows some benefits to lower the risk of coming down with a cold, especially for extreme athletes, as well as shortening duration of cold symptoms, although this effect was more prevalent in children. There was no benefit if you did not start taking the vitamin C until after you got sick. If you choose to take vitamin C typically one would need 250 mg a day; excess vitamin C is excreted through one's urine.

Dr. Jeffrey Kagan is a member of The Hospital of Central Connecticut (HOCC) medical staff. For referrals to HOCC physicians, please contact our free Need-A-Physician referral service by phone at 1-800-321-6244 or online, www.thocc.org.