Can Vitamins and Supplements Prevent Coronavirus? And Can You Take Too Much?

Learn how to stock your medicine cabinet, and avoid supplement scams.

Vitamins and supplements can be a helpful addition to boost the immune system in times of need. Though taking too many, or the wrong kind, can do serious damage, especially in relation to COVID-19, for which there is no current cure or means of prevention. We spoke with registered dietitian and scientific and health communications consultant at the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institute of Health (NIH), Carol Haggans, as well as Dr. Paul Coates, a board member of the American Society for Nutrition and the former Director of the Office of Dietary Supplements at the NIH to find which supplements might be useful to add to your routine and which to avoid.

Fighting Off the Common Cold

When cold and flu season rolls around, general wisdom encourages us to grab a bottle of vitamin C and chug a bottle of orange juice, but according to Haggans, beefing up your vitamin C consumption can only get you so far. It won't work for preventing colds. While vitamin C (and other vitamins, but we'll get to that later) are key to keeping the immune system healthy and strong, it can only do so much. As Haggans shared, "People who take vitamin C supplements regularly might have slightly shorter colds or somewhat milder symptoms, but taking vitamin C supplements after cold symptoms start does not appear to be helpful." Increasing dosages beyond the recommended intake won't do you any good, in fact, it likely will do some harm. Ingesting dosages higher than 2,000 milligrams of vitamin C a day could have some unpleasant side effects, including diarrhea, nausea, and stomach cramps.

An unsung ally in the fight against cold and flus is the mineral zinc, which also works to support immune health. According to Haggans, sucking on a zinc lozenge could speed recovery of the common cold, but only through the lozenge form. Zinc can also have some pretty nasty adverse side effects if taken in quantities exceeding the recommended daily limit, including loss of appetites, stomach cramps and even, counterintuitively, lower levels of immunity.

White pills spilling out of prescription bottle onto orange surface
Grace Cary / Getty Images

Coronavirus "Cures"

When it comes to vitamins, the World Health Organization says, "There is currently no guidance on the use of micronutrient supplements as a treatment of COVID-19." Haggans acknowledged that there are also no dietary supplement ingredients that will prevent or treat coronavirus, though there are numerous fraudulent products currently available for purchase online. Colloidal silver, which is one common product being touted online as a "miracle cure", is most definitely not, according to Coates who stated that, "Silver is bad stuff. The evidence for its efficacy is almost zero. It turns your skin blue at high levels of intake." The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission are currently monitoring and warning companies selling such products.

How Much is Too Much?

When it comes to vitamins and supplements in the worst scenarios, too much or too little of a certain ingredient can cause blindness and death. Though so long as one follows the guidelines as noted, you'll be fine. As Coates shared, "if people are taking dietary supplements, the vitamins and minerals that we are talking about, at or near the recommended intake levels there's really no harm." While this may seem obvious, issues can arise when adding multiple supplements and vitamins to your routine. Some wellness influencers have espoused ingesting upwards of 20 vitamins in a day, including celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis, though Coates cautions that too many can be harmful. He noted that especially at this time during the pandemic, we should try to be aware as "there are people who take advantages of situations. I think one needs to be cautious about hearing things on the internet or social media that seem remarkably, almost too good to be true."

Too much of a good thing can certainly categorize excess consumption of certain vitamins, as Haggans shared with Allrecipes that, "Some nutrients are even more toxic at high amounts. For example, high amounts of vitamin A can cause birth defects if a woman is pregnant, high intakes of vitamin B6 can cause nerve damage, and iron can be fatal at extremely high doses." For these reasons and more, speak with your doctor or a registered dietitian about adding any supplements into your routine.

Bottom Line

If you're concerned that you're unable to adequately meet your nutritional needs through diet alone, Coates recommended adding a multi-vitamin. He added, "The evidence for utility is not great, but the evidence for harm is zero. Possibility of it doing some good in times of nutritional stress, it makes reasonable sense to me."

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