Nault D, Machingo TA, Shipper AG, et al. Zinc for prevention and treatment of the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2024 May 9;5(5):CD014914. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD014914.pub2.
Abstract

BACKGROUND: The common cold is an acute, self-limiting viral respiratory illness. Symptoms include nasal congestion and mucus discharge, sneezing, sore throat, cough, and general malaise. Given the frequency of colds, they are a public health burden and a significant cause of lost work productivity and school absenteeism. There are no established interventions to prevent colds or shorten their duration. However, zinc supplements are commonly recommended and taken for this purpose.

OBJECTIVES: To assess the effectiveness and safety of zinc for the prevention and treatment of the common cold.

SEARCH METHODS: We searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, and LILACS to 22 May 2023, and searched Web of Science Core Collection and two trials registries to 14 June 2023. We also used reference checking, citation searching, and contact with study authors to identify additional studies.

SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in children or adults that tested any form of zinc against placebo to prevent or treat the common cold or upper respiratory infection (URTI). We excluded zinc interventions in which zinc was combined with other minerals, vitamins, or herbs (e.g. a multivitamin, or mineral supplement containing zinc).

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We used the Cochrane risk of bias tool to assess risks of bias, and GRADE to assess the certainty of the evidence. We independently extracted data. When necessary, we contacted study authors for additional information. We assessed zinc (type and route) with placebo in the prevention and treatment of the common cold. Primary outcomes included the proportion of participants developing colds (for analyses of prevention trials only), duration of cold (measured in days from start to resolution of the cold), adverse events potentially due to zinc supplements (e.g. unpleasant taste, loss of smell, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhoea), and adverse events considered to be potential complications of the common cold (e.g. respiratory bacterial infections).

MAIN RESULTS: We included 34 studies (15 prevention, 19 treatment) involving 8526 participants. Twenty-two studies were conducted on adults and 12 studies were conducted on children. Most trials were conducted in the USA (n = 18), followed by India, Indonesia, Iran, and Turkey (two studies each), and Australia, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, Tanzania, Thailand, and the UK (one study each). The 15 prevention studies identified the condition as either common cold (n = 8) or URTI (n = 7). However, almost all therapeutic studies (17/19) focused on the common cold. Most studies (17/34) evaluated the effectiveness of zinc administered as lozenges (3 prevention; 14 treatment) in acetate, gluconate, and orotate forms; gluconate lozenges were the most common (9/17). Zinc gluconate was given at doses between 45 and 276 mg/day for between 4.5 and 21 days. Five (5/17) lozenge studies gave acetate lozenges and two (2/17) gave both acetate and gluconate lozenges. One (1/17) lozenge study administered intranasal (gluconate) and lozenge (orotate) zinc in tandem for cold treatment. Of the 17/34 studies that did not use lozenges, 1/17 gave capsules, 3/17 administered dissolved powders, 5/17 gave tablets, 4/17 used syrups, and 4/17 used intranasal administration. Most studies were at unclear or high risk of bias in at least one domain. There may be little or no reduction in the risk of developing a cold with zinc compared to placebo (risk ratio (RR) 0.93, 95% CI 0.85 to 1.01; I2 = 20%; 9 studies, 1449 participants; low-certainty evidence). There may be little or no reduction in the mean number of colds that occur over five to 18 months of follow-up (mean difference (MD) -0.90, 95% CI -1.93 to 0.12; I2 = 96%; 2 studies, 1284 participants; low-certainty evidence). When colds occur, there is probably little or no difference in the duration of colds in days (MD -0.63, 95% CI -1.29 to 0.04; I² = 77%; 3 studies, 740 participants; moderate-certainty evidence), and there may be little or no difference in global symptom severity (standardised mean difference (SMD) 0.04, 95% CI -0.35 to 0.43; I² = 0%; 2 studies, 101 participants; low-certainty evidence). When zinc is used for cold treatment, there may be a reduction in the mean duration of the cold in days (MD -2.37, 95% CI -4.21 to -0.53; I² = 97%; 8 studies, 972 participants; low-certainty evidence), although it is uncertain whether there is a reduction in the risk of having an ongoing cold at the end of follow-up (RR 0.52, 95% CI 0.21 to 1.27; I² = 65%; 5 studies, 357 participants; very low-certainty evidence), or global symptom severity (SMD -0.03, 95% CI -0.56 to 0.50; I² = 78%; 2 studies, 261 participants; very low-certainty evidence), and there may be little or no difference in the risk of a change in global symptom severity (RR 1.02, 95% CI 0.85 to 1.23; 1 study, 114 participants; low-certainty evidence). Thirty-one studies reported non-serious adverse events (2422 participants). It is uncertain whether there is a difference in the risk of adverse events with zinc used for cold prevention (RR 1.11, 95% CI 0.84 to 1.47; I2 = 0%; 7 studies, 1517 participants; very low-certainty evidence) or an increase in the risk of serious adverse events (RR 1.67, 95% CI 0.78 to 3.57; I2 = 0%; 3 studies, 1563 participants; low-certainty evidence). There is probably an increase in the risk of non-serious adverse events when zinc is used for cold treatment (RR 1.34, 95% CI 1.15 to 1.55; I2 = 44%; 2084 participants, 16 studies; moderate-certainty evidence); no treatment study provided information on serious adverse events. No study provided clear information about adverse events considered to be potential complications of the common cold.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: The findings suggest that zinc supplementation may have little or no effect on the prevention of colds but may reduce the duration of ongoing colds, with an increase in non-serious adverse events. Overall, there was wide variation in interventions (including concomitant therapy) and outcomes across the studies, as well as incomplete reporting of several domains, which should be considered when making conclusions about the efficacy of zinc for the common cold.

Ratings by Clinicians (at least 3 per Specialty)
Specialty Score
Public Health
Pediatrics (General)
Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)
Hospital Doctor/Hospitalists
Internal Medicine
Comments from MORE raters

Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP) rater

A comprehensive Cochrane review on zinc supplements that does not provide any evidence for preventing colds and little evidence for reducing the duration of colds.

Hospital Doctor/Hospitalists rater

Pros: 1. - Comprehensive literature synthesis; 2. Rigorous standardized methodology and detailed efficacy evaluation; and 3. Quality assessment of studies. Cons: 1. Study design and zinc usage variability; 2. Potential publication bias; 3. Quality of primary studies may limit conclusions; and 4. Outcome measurement variability.

Pediatrics (General) rater

Many practicing pediatricians, especially in EDs, feel compelled to prescribe a medication even without a clear benefit. This high-quality study gives support for withholding these placebos.

Pediatrics (General) rater

This article is of interest to low-middle-income countries where almost all medications have to be purchased. If there is little or no benefit, it saves a large burden on the parent/guardian who in many cases has more than one child going to school who is susceptible to multiple common colds.

Public Health rater

Meta-analysis of zinc in preventing and treating the common cold shows some possible benefit in terms of reducing sick days with a URI, but the evidence is not strong for any benefits. Minimal harms.