Food or medication? The therapeutic effects of food on the duration and incidence of upper respiratory tract infections: a Review of the literature

Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2021;61(16):2691-2704. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2020.1784087. Epub 2020 Jul 10.


Purpose: Upper respiratory tract infections are common in children and adults. Antiviral treatments are only available for specific groups of patients, stimulating the distribution of over-the-counter medication to relieve the symptoms for the other patients. Studies about whole foods and their effect on the incidence and duration of upper respiratory tract infections were reviewed.

Methods: Randomized controlled trials and case-control studies available on MEDLINE, Web of Science, Cochrane Library and Embase were included.

Results and conclusions: Thirty-three studies were included. The incidence of respiratory infections or symptoms was shown to be reduced in some studies when probiotics, prebiotics, growing-up milk, fish oil, kiwi, garlic and xylitol were taken. Duration was favorably influenced by the intake of elderberry, kiwi, probiotics and fish oil. When the risk of bias and repetition is taken into account, probiotics and elderberry repeatedly show favorable effects. Prudent conclusions can be made in selective patient groups. However, the studies were diverse and were only performed by a few study groups.

Keywords: Whole foods; elderberry; kiwi; probiotics; recurrent upper respiratory tract infections.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Child
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Milk
  • Prebiotics
  • Probiotics*
  • Respiratory Tract Infections* / drug therapy
  • Respiratory Tract Infections* / epidemiology


  • Prebiotics