Background: The role of oral vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in the prevention and treatment of the common cold has been a subject of controversy for at least sixty years. Public interest in the topic continues to be high and vitamin C continues to be widely sold and used as a preventive and therapeutic agent for this common ailment.
Objectives: To discover whether oral vitamin C in doses of 200 mg or more daily, reduces the incidence, duration or severity of the common cold when used either as continuous prophylaxis or after the onset of cold symptoms.
Search strategy: This updated review added to earlier searches, a full search of the following electronic databases: the Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library Issue 2, 2004); MEDLINE (January 1966 to June 2004); and EMBASE (1990 to June 2004).
Selection criteria: Papers were excluded if a dose less than 200 mg daily of vitamin C was used; if there was no placebo comparison; if methods of outcome assessment were inadequately described; and if the report did not record any of the three study outcomes (incidence, duration or severity) in sufficient detail to enter into the meta-analysis. Three criteria of study quality were assessed: Jadad scores, placebo distinguish-ability, and allocation concealment.
Data collection and analysis: Two reviewers independently extracted data and assessed trial quality. 'Incidence' of colds during prophylaxis was assessed as the proportion of participants experiencing one or more colds during the study period. 'Duration' was the mean days of illness of cold episodes and 'severity' of these episodes was assessed by days confined indoors, off work or school. or by symptom severity scores.
Main results: Twenty-nine trial comparisons involving 11,077 study participants contributed to the meta-analysis on the relative risk (RR) of developing a cold while taking prophylaxis. The pooled RR was 0.96 (95% CI 0.92 to 1.00). A subgroup of six trials that involved a total of 642 marathon runners, skiers, and soldiers on sub-arctic exercises reported a pooled RR of 0.50 (95%CI 0.38 to 0.66). Thirty comparisons that involved 9,676 respiratory episodes contributed to the meta-analysis on common cold duration during prophylaxis . A consistent benefit was observed, representing a reduction in cold duration of 8% (95% CI 3% to 13%) for adult participants and 13.5% (95% CI 5% to 21%) for child participants. Fifteen trial comparisons that involved 7,045 respiratory episodes contributed to the meta-analysis of severity of episodes experienced while on prophylaxis. The pooled results revealed a difference favouring those on vitamin C when days confined to home and off work or school were taken as a measure of severity (p = 0.02), and when restricting to studies which used symptom severity scores (p = 0.16), and for the both measures of severity combined (p = 0.004). Seven trial comparisons that involved 3,294 respiratory episodes contributed to the meta-analysis of cold duration during therapy with vitamin C that was initiated after the onset of cold symptoms, and no significant difference from placebo was seen. Four trial comparisons that involved 2,753 respiratory episodes, contributed to the meta-analysis of cold severity during therapy and no significant difference from placebo was seen.In laboratory studies, differing methods of artificial transmission of virus to vitamin C or placebo treated volunteers in residential experiments gave different results. Volunteers infected by nasal installation showed small or no benefit from vitamin C, whereas a group who were infected more naturally, reported less severe symptom severity scores (p = 0.04).
Reviewers' conclusions: The failure of vitamin C supplementation to reduce the incidence of colds in the normal population indicates that routine mega-dose prophylaxis is not rationally justified for community use. But evidence shows that it could be justified in persons exposed to brief periods of severe physical exercise and/or cold environments. Also, the consistent and statistically significant small benefits on duration and severity for those using regular vitamin C prophylaxis indicates that vitamin C plays some role in respiratory defence mechanisms. The trials in which vitamin C was introduced at the onset of colds as therapy did not show any benefit in doses up to 4 grams daily, but one large trial reported equivocal benefit from an 8 gram therapeutic dose at onset of symptoms.