We explore the effectiveness of supplements, and our top tips to keep you and your family as healthy as possible this winter

Healthy woman exercising in winter

Cold and flu season has arrived with offices, schools and shopping centres brimming with coughs, sneezes, and runny noses. While it can be tempting to dash to the supermarket or pharmacy to stock up on vitamins promising immunity in a jar, let’s explore the effectiveness of these popular supplements, and our tried and tested tips to keep you and your family as healthy as possible this winter.

Putting supplements to the test

Vitamin C

For more than 70 years, researchers across the globe have tested the popular belief that vitamin C is the best home remedy for the common cold. A review that looked at a range of studies found that there was some evidence that regular vitamin C supplements could reduce the duration of a cold, but its effectiveness for preventing or reducing the length of a cold once symptoms have started hasn’t been proved in therapeutic trials1. More studies would be needed to determine the true effectiveness of vitamin C. To naturally boost your immune system, add fresh citrus fruits – oranges, limes and lemons, and vegies such as tomatoes, broccoli and capsicum to your winter menu for a vitamin C fix. Although it can’t guarantee to keep your household cold-free this season, vitamin C has been clinically proven2 to help keep your skin, bones and connective tissue healthy and support wounds to heal.

Echinacea

Often packaged up with vitamin C, zinc, and garlic, echinacea is a plant-based supplement, promoted widely to provide relief by reducing the severity and duration of a cold. The quality and active ingredients in echinacea-based products can vary greatly, depending on what variety or area of the plant is used, and how it’s manufactured. This variation has made it very difficult for researchers to accurately assess the immune-boosting benefits of echinacea and its effectiveness in treating a cold. Studies dating back to 1981 have established that it is possible that some forms of echinacea could contribute to the prevention rather than treatment of colds3, however the evidence is not strong enough to be considered conclusive.

Garlic

The humble garlic clove is packed with nutrients including vitamin C, B6 and zinc, and is claimed to have antimicrobial, antifungal and antiviral properties4. A separate review highlights one study that suggests garlic may help to prevent the common cold5, however, given this is a single, small-scale study, more evidence is needed to prove whether or not garlic can really combat the sniffles. Until then, garlic’s range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidant properties are still reason enough to keep a bulb or two in the pantry. Plus, it’s a great way to add extra flavour to your favourite winter dishes!

What about zinc, St John’s wort or olive leaf extract? Just like vitamin c, more research is needed.

The verdict

There are no indications that adding supplements to your diet will cause any harm when taken as directed. However, there is also no hard evidence that these popular vitamins can prevent the common cold or flu as often promised. Instead, further clinical research is needed to settle these theories once and for all.

So, what’s proven? Daily habits count. When you’re getting enough sleep, eating well, and practising healthy hygiene, you’ll be less likely to catch a cold.

“Along with a healthy lifestyle and diet, one of the best ways to support and keep our immune system strong is to ensure adequate intake of fruit and vegetables. This will provide more overall health benefits than any supplement”, says Sue Abhary, Medibank’s Director of Medical Research.

Top tips to help prevent and manage a cold

Eat well

First step: add plenty of colour to your plate. Hearty winter soups and stir fries are a great way to up your daily serve of vitamin-rich veggies and make your tastebuds and immune system happy. Pair with lean meat or legumes for protein, complex carbs such as sweet potato, barley or brown rice for energy, and warming herbs and spices like turmeric and ginger.

Stay hydrated

You may think there’s no need for that extra glass or two of water each day as the weather cools, however the opposite is true. For optimal mind and body function, it’s just as important to drink plenty of water in winter as it is in the warmer months, especially if your workplace is heated. Carry a lightweight water bottle with you throughout the day as a good reminder to top up.

Wash your hands

Washing your hands with soap before prepping dinner or sitting down to eat lunch, is a simple, yet incredibly effective way to stop the transfer of cold-causing germs. This is a great habit for kids to learn at mealtime too, to help fight off any nasty viruses doing the rounds at school or daycare.

Get your flu shot

It’s not too late to make a quick trip to your local GP for your annual flu shot. This injection is most effective approximately two months after you receive it, so prepare your family now before the peak cold and flu season hits in July and August. The vaccine is free* for children aged between 6 months and 5 years and adults aged 65 and over.

Clean as you go

Bin any tissues straight after blowing your nose, and always remember to cough or sneeze into your elbow to keep your germs to yourself. Use an antibacterial cloth to wipe down surfaces including your desk at work, busy areas of your home such as kitchen benches or the kids’ play area, and door handles at the end of each day.

Sit it out

If you do have a cold, it’s important to take some time out to support your recovery by resting at home, and to also avoid spreading the virus to your friends, family and workmates. Use this time to catch up on sleep, prepare healthy homemade meals, and get stuck into that book, podcast or TV series you haven’t had time to enjoy. Find out when your cold is contagious to know when it’s best to stay at home.

Learn more about the difference between a cold and flu.

1 https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/full?highlightAbstract=withdrawn%7Ccold

2 https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/vitamin-c

3 https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000530.pub3/full?highlightAbstract=withdrawn%7Ccold

4 https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD006206.pub4/full?highlightAbstract=withdrawn%7Ccold

5 https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD006206.pub4/full?highlightAbstract=withdrawn%7Ccold

* Please note that while the flu vaccine is free, a GP consultation or other fee may apply. Please check with your GP or vaccine provider before booking your consultation.