My talented colleague, Alyssa Singh BSN RN, is a school nurse in Seattle and we recently chatted about cold remedies and immune boosters. Alyssa said, “Every day, I am subjected to dozens of unwashed hands, uncovered coughs, and complaints of sickness. My fellow colleagues, particularly teachers, are in the same position.” The teachers at her school reach for Airborne and Emergen-C as their primary defense. Naturally, we wanted to know if these products work and which one is better. As nurses and science geeks, we decided to evaluate the two products based on peer-reviewed research. We looked at the active ingredients and compared their effectiveness in treating and preventing colds.
SPOILER ALERT: If you are someone who responds well to Vitamin C, Airborne (when taken 3 times per day) might be a better choice than Emergen-C to reduce cold symptoms while sick. Both Airborne and Emergen-C can be taken once daily–starting at the onset of cold season–to prevent catching a cold. But in both cases, there are higher quality and more effective options and I outline those in the Recommendations section below.
AIRBORNE vs EMERGEN-C
There haven’t been consistent, high-quality studies to show that Vitamin C has a noticeable impact on treating colds. But luckily for some people, Vitamin C can reduce the number of days that a cold lasts and, when 1000 mg of Vitamin C is taken with 10 mg of zinc, it can reduce the severity of a runny nose (and possibly other symptoms). As for prevention, taking 200 mg daily might be helpful.
- BEST CHOICE when SICK: AIRBORNE. Both Airborne and Emergen-C have 1000 mg of Vitamin C, but you can take Airborne up to 3 times a day, making Airborne a better choice while feeling sick. Epocrates recommends up to 3000 mg per day when symptomatic.
- BEST CHOICE for PREVENTION: BOTH, maybe. Either product might work when taken once a day as a preventative measure, but remember, not everyone benefits from taking Vitamin C. Furthermore, for some people, daily use of Vitamin C can contribute to kidney stones.
There is no strong evidence that Riboflavin is protective against colds or useful in treating symptoms.
- BEST CHOICE: NEITHER. Airborne has more riboflavin than Emergen-C, but it doesn’t really matter.
It’s true that Zinc syrup and lozenges, when taken within the first 24 hours of symptoms, may reduce the severity and duration of a cold. However, it is believed that after the sniffles set in, no less than 75 mg of Zinc is effective. But when combined with 1000 mg of Vitamin C, a smaller 10 mg dose of Zinc appears to be helpful. For prevention, there is a chance that regular daily doses of Zinc might work, but more studies are needed before we know for sure. Just because it works for kids, doesn’t mean it will work for adults.
- BEST CHOICE when SICK: AIRBORNE. Airborne has 1000 mg of Vitamin C and nearly 10 mg of Zinc in one dose which seems to be an effective combo. Neither Airborne nor Emergen-C come close to 75 mg (the minimum effective dose for treating an infection) but taken three times daily, Airborne contains more Zinc (for a total of 24 mg). If you buy a supplement to bring your intake up to 75 mg, continue taking it every day until you feel better. If you’re worried about gastrointestinal side effects, the syrup and lozenge formulations are better tolerated than the pill form.
- BEST CHOICE for PREVENTION: AIRBORNE, maybe. Zinc works for kids; not sure about adults.
Manganese doesn’t have a role in treating colds.
- BEST CHOICE: NEITHER.
Vitamin A is known for its antioxidant benefits, but there is no solid evidence to show it will help you feel better on sick days. However, taken daily, Vitamin A might prevent future colds by enhancing gut flora but we don’t know how much or how often works best. I believe a daily, high-quality probiotic* will likely be safer and have greater impact.
- BEST CHOICE when SICK: NEITHER.
- BEST CHOICE for PREVENTION: AIRBORNE, maybe. Because Airborne contains Vitamin A and Emergen-C does not, Airborne is the better option. But if you are eating a balanced diet and taking a daily probiotic, you don’t need this ingredient.
There isn’t any science to back up Vitamin E’s cold-fighting potential after you’ve been infected. But if you want to prevent a cold with Vitamin E, there is some evidence that a daily supplement of 200 IU is helpful. More than that amount may be harmful.
- BEST CHOICE when SICK: NEITHER.
- BEST CHOICE for PREVENTION: NEITHER. Airborne contains Vitamin E and Emergen-C does not, so Airborne seems like the best choice. However, Airborne doesn’t contain enough Vitamin E to meet the 200 IU needed for effective cold prevention.
Almost 20 years ago, studies were published suggesting that echinacea can shorten the duration of a cold. But since then, no one has been able to repeat the studies and come up with similar results. This means the original studies are now considered unreliable. However, newer evidence shows that echinacea might have some preventative properties when taken regularly. But because echinacea isn’t FDA regulated, there might be some challenge in finding a high-quality supplement that contains the right dose.
- BEST CHOICE when SICK: NEITHER.
- BEST CHOICE for PREVENTION: AIRBORNE, maybe. The quality and amount of Echinacea in Airborne is unknown.
Folic Acid is known to boost the immune system but there are no studies regarding its affect on colds.
- BEST CHOICE: NEITHER. Airborne doesn’t have any Folic Acid and Emergen-C does, but without evidence that it prevents or treats colds, it doesn’t really matter.
Niacin lowers cholesterol but its effects on colds hasn’t been scientifically tested.
- BEST CHOICE: NEITHER. Just because Emergen-C has some, doesn’t mean it works.
- Blast a cold out with 3000 mg of Vitamin C (if Vitamin C works for you) and 75 mg of Zinc daily as long as symptoms persist.
- For prevention, start a daily regimen of 200 mg Vitamin C, Echinacea, and a high-quality probiotic* at the end of summer, around Labor Day, and continue until the beginning of spring. Daily Zinc might be helpful as well.
Editor’s Note: As with all supplements, Airborne and Emergen-C do not fall under the FDA (Federal Drug Administration) and are therefore not subject to testing. In terms of dosing, according to the packaging, Airborne tablets may be taken up to 3 times a day for adults. Emergen-C recommends 1 packet daily. Both state that those who are pregnant, nursing, or taking medications should consult a physician before use.
Adults suffer 2-3 colds per season, most are caused by viruses, and antibiotics won’t help. But if you’ve been sick for over 10 days, depending on your symptoms, it might be time to visit the doctor to see if you’ve developed a secondary bacterial infection or something worse.
* Gail Ingram likes this probiotic available online through Sakara Life. (We don’t make any money from this link or receive payment when Sakara products are purchased.)
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