Should You Try to Avoid Milk When You Are Sick? Does Vitamin C Help with Colds? Here is What Works — and What Doesn’t

We are amid the flu and cold season, which every year serves as a reminder that there is no cure for the common cold — and why, when you catch it, you spend the entirety of it fighting it with cold remedies, both over-the-counter and with tricks that have been around for decades. However, there is never a guarantee those tricks and tips will work.

Read below to clear the germ-laden air because no one wants to waste time and, as a result, feel worse in the pursuit of getting better. Does honey work like magic for a cough or sore throat? Does vitamin C boost your ability to fight germs? Will milk make your mucus thicker? 

Here is what you should know about remedies for the common cold.

Zinc

Although research into zinc and the common cold is abundant, the results about its effectiveness are mixed.

“Some research suggests that zinc supplementation, particularly when taken within 24 hours of the onset of cold symptoms, may help shorten the duration of the cold,” said Michael Del Junco, family medicine physician with Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California. Like vitamin C, zinc works along with the immune system to reinforce the function of protective white blood cells.

An analysis published in 2021 in BMH Open gathered data from 28 random controlled trials investigating whether zinc gels, capsules, lozenges, or sprays could speed up treatment or relieve cold symptoms. It found taking 75 to 100 milligrams of zinc daily at the first sign of a cold significantly reduced the severity of symptoms and shortened the duration of symptoms. 

The results were only seen in some participants, so there isn’t a way to guarantee zinc supplements will help. But there is minimal harm in trying it if you stay within the recommended dosage, said Del Junco.

Honey for a cough or sore throat

“Natural honey has antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties,” Del Junco said. “It also has anti-inflammatory properties.” Here is the catch to that, though: Drizzling honey into tea could lessen its superpowers. “I recommend consuming honey during illness in its natural form,” Del Junco says — a spoonful daily works. “Avoid heating the hone, because the heating process will denature the proteins and enzymes, resulting in a loss of enzyme activity,” he explained.

This doesn’t mean avoiding adding honey to your tea if it is soothing when sick. Tea can help with hydration, which is also an essential aspect of cold recovery, “so there is no reason not to use it,” David M. Brady, chief medical officer at Designs for Health and a naturopathic doctor, said.

Brady recommends running a humidifier to keep the nasal passages working optimally and moist, regardless of which cold remedies you choose when under the weather. Del Junco offers one solid recommendation he can give safely: practicing good hygiene, staying hydrated, and maintaining a balanced diet, which Del Junco says are critical for overall immune health.

“When you have a cold, your body tends to lose more fluids due to excess mucus production, fevers, and sweating,” Del Junco explains. “Staying hydrated during this time can help alleviate symptoms and support overall well-being.” You can ensure you get enough by eating oatmeal, yogurt, broth-based soups, and smoothies. “Current guidelines are focused on increasing calories during illness due to increased metabolic demands,” says Del Junco. “In short, eat what you feel you can tolerate.”

Avoiding milk

Avoiding milk and other dairy is standard advice when you’re feeling sick. But Del Junco says there is “no current evidence to support avoidance of milk during an illness” and added, “I would recommend avoiding milk if you have lactose intolerance, but otherwise, milk is a great source of calcium and protein, which would be helpful during an illness.” With that said, some individuals report increased mucus with the consumption of dairy, says Del Junco, and if that’s the case for you, avoid it while you’re sick.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is an antioxidant that “has been shown to positively impact immune support,” says Del Junco. It works by stimulating the function and production of white blood cells, which are the main barriers of the body against infection. “Some studies suggest vitamin C can help reduce the overall duration and severity of at-home cold symptoms. Evidence to support this, however, is not entirely consistent and does vary from study to study,” explains Del Junco.

Del Junco adds that vitamin C’s impact varies from person to person and depends on the person’s choice of vitamin C supplementation and their condition. Despite that, he says it doesn’t hurt to increase your intake of vegetables and fruits rich in vitamin C, including oranges, guava, kiwi, strawberries, bell peppers, broccoli, and tomatoes. 

If you choose a supplement form of vitamin C, Brady warns that concentrated doses can cause loose stools. If it happens, “the serving size should be reduced until these resolve,” says Brady.

Vitamin C shines the most as a preventative for a cold instead of a treatment. Del Junco says if you focus on getting enough of the vitamin in your diet daily, it could help prevent you from getting sick in the first place.

Echinacea

Echinacea is a standard supplement that is touted to help with colds. This native plant is rich in phenols, flavonoids, alkylamides, and polysaccharides, which all have protective functions in the body, according to Brady.

“Its roots and aerial parts have been used traditionally for colds, respiratory infections, bacterial infections, and wound healing for centuries,” Brady says.

However, scientific findings on echinacea’s effectiveness are mixed. For example, an older meta-analysis found that echinacea helps reduce the odds and duration of catching a cold. 

An additional study found it reduces the risk of recurrent respiratory infections. On the other side, a 2014 review with 4,631 participants in 24 double-blind trials found that echinacea products don’t provide benefits for the treatment of colds.

There are a few ways users of echinacea choose to ingest the herb. The most popular methods are in supplement forms and dried tea. Be aware that the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate supplements similar to these, so it is best to consult your doctor before taking them.