Aug. 18, 2004 -- When it comes to the common cold, just about everyone claims to have a cure or a treatment — some real, some bogus. But researchers now believe they've found something that works to ward off the cold and other upper respiratory infections: vitamin E.
Elderly nursing home residents who received vitamin E supplements were less likely to catch colds and other upper respiratory tract infections than nursing home residents who took a placebo, a study funds.
That may have implications for a larger audience.
Young and Old Alike
"We did a study with young men where we supplemented them with vitamin E," says lead author Simin Nikbin Meydani, director of the Nutritional Immunology Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.
Meydani found that vitamin E supplements also resulted in an improved immune response among young men.
"It was a significant improvement, but the degree of improvement was not as much as we saw in the elderly," Meydani adds. "This is understandable because the elderly have a lower immune response to begin with, so vitamin E might be more effective with them."
The study's results could be useful to the general population, according to Bobbi Langkamp-Henken, a registered dietician and associate professor in the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
"I don't think it would be a bad idea to take a multivitamin supplement with a little vitamin E," she says, though she also advises taking a common-sense approach to vitamin supplements.
"As with anything, the key is moderation and variety," she adds. "You still need a balanced, healthy diet — you can't live on vitamin E alone."
The Cold Shoulder
In the study, 451 nursing home residents living in the Boston area took vitamin E or a placebo every day for 12 consecutive months. After a year, researchers evaluated the occurrence of respiratory tract infections among the residents.
Fewer people in the group taking vitamin E contracted a respiratory tract infection. Most significantly, fewer people taking vitamin E who completed the study contracted upper respiratory infections like a cold; just 106 people in the vitamin E group contracted one or more colds during the year, while 126 in the placebo group did.
The authors of the study note that vitamin E might be more effective against upper respiratory infections because most, like the common cold, are caused by viruses. Previous studies with mice found that the vitamin protects against viral infections, but not bacterial infections.
The findings, published in the Aug. 18 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association are of particular interest for the elderly. Infections are more common among the elderly who are residents of nursing homes, and respiratory tract infections are a major cause of sickness and death among elderly.