Sure, they can boost your immune system—but can they do much against COVID-19?
- Just because vitamins, supplements, and medications can help prevent and treat the common cold and symptoms of the flu, that doesn’t mean they are the best measures to prevent and treat COVID-19.
- While getting essential vitamins and minerals from supplements and whole foods can help bolster your immune system, it’s best to first take coronavirus-specific precautions, such as washing your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, not touching your face, covering your coughs and sneezes, and practicing physical distancing or physical isolation to prevent getting and spreading the virus.
- This is a developing story. If any of the below information changes, it will be updated as necessary. For more of our coronavirus coverage, click here.
In the face of a global pandemic, it’s only natural to want to stock up on some preventative vitamin C packets and zinc supplements in an attempt to boost your immune system and maybe even wrestle back some control in what feels like a helpless situation.
But before you throw all your hard-earned money at vitamins and supplements, we talked to Donald Boyd, M.D., R.D.N., an oncologist, hematologist, and nutritionist at Yale Medicine, to find out if everyday vitamins, supplements, and medications can safeguard you from the most recent contagious strain of novel coronavirus(COVID-19)—or if there’s more you should be doing.
First, a quick refresher on the virus: COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, and has since rapidly spread throughout the world. According to a February report of a joint World Health Organization-China mission, the virus’ symptoms can be as mild as a sore throat, headache, and nasal congestion, or as severe as a fever, dry cough, fatigue, sputum (phlegm) production, and shortness of breath.
How to Prevent Coronavirus
Given that these symptoms can mimic the flu or common cold, you might be tempted to use the same types of medications, vitamins, or supplements to treat and prevent it. (It’s worth noting that the majority of people diagnosed with COVID-19 so far have reported a fever and shortness of breath to start—both of which typically don’t present with the flu or the common cold, Omid Mehdizadeh, M.D., otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, told Prevention.)
But according to Boyd, you can’t compare COVID-19 to the common cold or the flu. “It’s a brand new virus that is dangerous,” he tells Runner’s World. “For people who are taking multivitamins or vitamin C, it won’t hurt, but you should not rely on them over the advised precautions of preventing coronavirus, like washing your hands often or practicing social distancing or social isolation.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), other precautions include covering your coughs and sneezes, cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces every day, and avoid touching your face.
With those precautions in place, being well-nourished with the proper nutrients is a factor in preventing any illness—including COVID-19—Boyd says. Research backs this up—according to a 2018 study published in the journal Nutrients, being nutrient-deficient can lower your immune function.
“Various micronutrients are essential for immunocompetence, particularly vitamins A, C, D, E, B2, B6, and B12, folic acid, iron, selenium, and zinc,” the study states. “Micronutrient deficiencies are a recognized global public health issue, and poor nutritional status predisposes to certain infections.”
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends the following daily doses of the above micronutrients for adults:
- Vitamin A: no more than 3,000 micrograms (mcg)
- Vitamin C: 75 milligrams (mg) for women; 90 mg for men
- Vitamin D: 600 international units (IU)
- Vitamin E: 15 mg
- Vitamin B2: 1.1 mg for women; 1.3 mg for men
- Vitamin B6: 1.3 mg
- Vitamin B12: 2.4 mcg
- Folic acid: 400 mcg of dietary folate equivalents
- Iron: 18 mg for women; 8 mg for men
- Selenium: 55 mcg
- Zinc: 8 mg for women; 11 mg for men
As a general rule of thumb, the safe level of most nutrients in a multivitamin or mineral supplement should be around 100 percent of the daily value. However, there are some exceptions, according to Healthline. Taking high doses of vitamins A, D, and E can lead to longterm complications such as irregular heartbeat, blood clotting interference, hemorrhages, and organ damage. Taking high doses of vitamins C, B6, and folic acid can lead to issues such as GI distress, nausea, heartburn, and can negatively impact your immune system, so it’s important to pay close attention to the doses of these micronutrients.
That’s also why whole foods are always the best way to get the nutrients you need, Boyd says. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), you should eat 5 servings of vegetables per day, 4 servings of fruit per day, 6 servings of whole grains per day, 3 servings of dairy per day, 8 to 9 servings of lean meat and eggsper week, 2 to 3 servings of fish (preferably that provide omega-3 fatty acids) per week, 5 servings of nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes per week, and 3 servings of healthy fats and oils per day.
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As for other ways to better help boost your immune system and prevent against coronavirus, Boyd recommends getting enough sleep and moderate (but not excessive) physical activity—both can help lower stress and improve your immune function. “Listen to music, dance, play guitar—whatever helps calm you down,” he says.
What to Do If You Think You Have COVID-19
Symptoms can occur two to 14 days after exposure, according to the CDC. If you are experiencing symptoms you think may be related to COVID-19, Boyd suggests contacting your local coronavirus hotline, which provides recommendations based on symptoms.
As a general guideline, if you have mild symptoms, stay at home and self-isolate, and take medications such as Tylenol and decongestants, Boyd says. If you have more severe symptoms, such as a fever over 100 degrees, a cough, and shortness of breath, call your healthcare provider or local health department.
Bookmark your state, county, and local public health departments—you can find a directory of state offices here. They’ll have the latest on the recommended protocol in your area.
“You don’t want to go to the emergency room unless you are specifically told to because that’s where you could get or spread [coronavirus],” Boyd says.
Boyd cautions that if you do suspect that you have COVID-19, you should work closely with your doctor, especially if you are already taking medications regularly as some may interact negatively with the virus.
“This is rapidly evolving illness, and more information should come out about the relationship between medications and coronavirus as more research is done,” Boyd says.
It’s best to avoid herbal products at this time—such as ginseng, elderberry, echinacea—Boyd says, because medical professionals don’t currently know the effect they have on this virus either.
The Bottom Line
While getting essential vitamins and minerals from supplements and whole foods can help bolster your immune system, it’s best to first take coronavirus-specific precautions, such as washing your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, not touching your face, covering your coughs and sneezes, and practicing physical distancing or physical isolation to prevent getting and spreading the virus.
If you come down with any symptoms of the virus, call your local coronavirus hotline for specific recommendations and instructions.
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