Background: The common cold is one of the most widespread illnesses and is a leading cause of visits to the doctor and absenteeism from school and work. Trials conducted since 1984 investigating the role of zinc for the common cold symptoms have had mixed results. Inadequate treatment masking and reduced bioavailability of zinc from some formulations have been cited as influencing results.
Objectives: To assess the effect of zinc on common cold symptoms.
Search strategy: We searched CENTRAL (2010, Issue 2) which contains the Acute Respiratory Infections Group's Specialised Register, MEDLINE (1966 to May week 3, 2010) and EMBASE (1974 to June 2010).
Selection criteria: Randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials using zinc for at least five consecutive days to treat, or for at least five months to prevent the common cold.
Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently extracted data and assessed trial quality.
Main results: We included 13 therapeutic trials (966 participants) and two preventive trials (394 participants). Intake of zinc is associated with a significant reduction in the duration (standardized mean difference (SMD) -0.97; 95% confidence interval (CI) -1.56 to -0.38) (P = 0.001), and severity of common cold symptoms (SMD -0.39; 95% CI -0.77 to -0.02) (P = 0.04). There was a significant difference between the zinc and control group for the proportion of participants symptomatic after seven days of treatment (OR 0.45; 95% CI 0.2 to 1.00) (P = 0.05). The incidence rate ratio (IRR) of developing a cold (IRR 0.64; 95% CI 0.47 to 0.88) (P = 0.006), school absence (P = 0.0003) and prescription of antibiotics (P < 0.00001) was lower in the zinc group. Overall adverse events (OR 1.59; 95% CI 0.97 to 2.58) (P = 0.06), bad taste (OR 2.64; 95% CI 1.91 to 3.64) (P < 0.00001) and nausea (OR 2.15; 95% CI 1.44 to 3.23) (P = 0.002) were higher in the zinc group.
Authors' conclusions: Zinc administered within 24 hours of onset of symptoms reduces the duration and severity of the common cold in healthy people. When supplemented for at least five months, it reduces cold incidence, school absenteeism and prescription of antibiotics in children. There is potential for zinc lozenges to produce side effects. In view of this and the differences in study populations, dosages, formulations and duration of treatment, it is difficult to make firm recommendations about the dose, formulation and duration that should be used.