Is Taking Vitamin C for a Cold or Flu a Waste of Money?

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It’s cold and flu season, and to make matters worse, temperatures across the country are dipping into WTF degrees. (We’ve even had to wear sweaters here in LA.) For many of us, now is the time we reach for vitamin C—whether we feel a little something coming on or to help prevent it from ever taking hold. But that might not be a good idea and it may even be a waste of your money.

I was just as shocked by that news as you probably are. No vitamin C when sick? But it helps, right? Not so fast, says Consumer Reports.

That’s right. Consumer Reports says, “chomping on megadoses of vitamin C, aka ascorbic acid, or sipping yet another glass of vitamin C mix won’t make your illness magically disappear. In fact, it could add to your woes.” Seems the only “emergenC” is your dwindling bank account.

And according to Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser, “Nothing, including vitamin C, has ever been shown to shorten the course of a common cold, which usually lasts 7 to 10 days.” It’s like a cruel joke, eh? Mother Nature just wants us to feel shitty and pathetic—probably retribution for how our species has been treating the planet. But I digress.

Not that vitamin C is all that expensive compared to other dietary supplements, it’s actually one of the most affordable supplements, but this astonishing news means you could be wasting your money even if it’s only a few dollars. And, according to Consumer Reports, taking vitamin C after a cold or flu has set in is most likely too late. Megadosing has been a controversial medical practice. Dr. Linus Pauling was known for his excessive vitamin C consumption, which he claimed could cure cancer, among other diseases. But Consumer Reports warns that too much vitamin C just gets excreted by the body though urine. So while you may think you’re doing yourself a favor, you might literally be peeing your money away.

Another risk factor applies to men, who are twice as likely to develop kidney stones if taking vitamin C regularly. “That’s according to an 11-year study of 48,850 Swedish men,” according to Consumer Reports.

There’s another not-so-pleasant risk factor that will make being sick suck way worse: diarrhea. Consumer Reports says that the National Institute of Health advises no more than 2,000 milligrams or risk loose stools and stomach cramping. That sucks when you’re not sick, but add a nasty cold or flu and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately, the worst days of a cold or flu are only 2-3 days long. Lots of rest and fluids will do you heaps of good in recovering quickly. And if you still want to keep vitamin C in your arsenal, start taking it now, when you’re not sick. According to Consumer Reports, some research has found that taking extra vitamin C on a daily basis can shorten the length of a cold by a day or so.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Image: Daniel Dalledonne

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.