I don’t love being sick, but I do love the first few hours of suspicion that I might be getting sick: the period in which I still feel well enough to do everything I’d normally do, but with the added enjoyment of tremendous self-pity. It is during this window of time that I will focus on damage control, attempting to minimize the actual sickness part as much as possible, in hopes I will feel just bad enough to stay home and watch TV all day, but not so bad that I am not better within 24 hours. Aside from nearly drowning myself from the inside out with gallons of water, my main tactic in cold minimization is to take Emergen-C two to four times a day.
There is something so delightfully retro about consuming medicines and supplements in the form of powder mixed into liquid, which is only part of the reason I love Emergen-C. I also love the radioactive orange taste and color, and the sense of superiority I feel drinking it — the feeling that I am taking control of my destiny, determined to muscle through my routine illness with little to no complaint. I am of the opinion that otherwise healthy people with colds get exactly two hours of external sympathy, and no more. You can spread them out, or spend them all at once, but what you do not get to do is be an adult who acts like the world is ending because you have the sniffles.
I don’t get sick often, and when I do, it doesn’t last very long, and though I’d like to give full credit to my natural immune system, I’ve long assumed that my Emergen-C consumption has something to do with it. I know vitamin C supplements — like all nutritional supplements — are largely useless. But Emergen-C feels different from taking an ordinary, boring vitamin C pill. It’s 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C, the equivalent, so they say, of ten oranges! Ten!
The good news Albert Ahn, clinical instructor of internal medicine at NYU Langone Health, has for me is that my Emergen-C consumption (probably) isn’t hurting me, and may in fact do some good — if not in the way I’ve long believed. “Vitamin C can be helpful in boosting immunity, and there are antioxidants in Emergen-C that can help boost the immune system as well,” says Ahn. “There’s not a lot of great evidence to suggest that this will help treat a cold, but it can’t hurt, either. It may not give you a lot of benefit but it’s not going to hurt if you take the appropriate dose.”
It has been my years-long understanding that Emergen-C is meant to be taken at the “first sign” of a cold in order to shorten the duration (and lessen the severity) of one’s illness, but Ahn tells me that’s not really a thing. “Once you’ve gotten sick already, your immune system is already compromised,” he says. “At that point, the only thing left is to supportively care for the cold. There’s really nothing that’s going to magically make it go away.” That means drinking lots of fluids, eating well (and eating enough), and resting, says Ahn — all the normal, boring, regular healthy habits we’re supposed to do all the time anyway.
I could have sworn that “take at the first sign of a cold” was part of Emergen-C’s stated directive, but it seems that was a problematic claim made by the comparable product Airborne, for which they were sued. The claims on Emergen-C’s website are accordingly modest, and the page for my preferred variety — Super Orange — claims only that consuming it might help make your day … “super.”
Ahn tells me that zinc supplements, on the other hand, might be able to limit a cold’s potency, but it’s no sure bet. “There is some very limited evidence to say that taking high doses of zinc in the first 24 hours of the common cold can help decrease the severity and the length of symptoms,” he says. He advises against taking intranasal forms of zinc, though, as it’s been known to alter one’s senses of smell, possibly irreversibly.
Emergen-C, too, can be overdone. “A lot of people say, well, if 1,000 milligrams is good, 2,000 is better, and 5,000 may be best,” says Ahn. “But taking too-high doses of vitamin C can definitely cause some problems — like diarrhea and cramping.” When used as a daily supplement on top of a well-balanced diet, and adequate sleep, Emergen-C can be a fine tool in one’s cold prevention arsenal, says Ahn — even if the benefit is mostly mental. “I can’t promise that you’re not going to get sick, and I can’t promise it’s going to make a difference, but for a lot of people, if it makes them feel a little bit better, I tell them go ahead,” he says. And, blessed with that very tepid medical encouragement, I will.