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The ideal preventive of infectious diseases—a vaccine—remains a futuristic and, many experts say, highly doubtful notion when it comes to colds. There are just too many viruses and viral variants involved to produce an effective vaccine against all or even the most prevalent among them. About 200 strains of viruses from eight different viral groups can cause the common cold. Other less direct preventives, like administering interferon or taking large doses of vitamin C, have not proved effective in preventing infection, although vitamin С can sometimes lessen the symptoms and shorten the duration of a cold.
Thanks to the promotion of vitamin С by the late Linus Pauling, twice a Nobel laureate (though not a physician or even a biologist), many people have become true believers in the ability of daily supplements of vitamin С to keep colds at bay. Unfortunately, well-designed scientific studies have not borne out the preventive role of even hefty doses of vitamin C. In those studies, people who took vitamin С got sick just as often as those who didn’t, although the supplement users tended to have fewer symptoms and recover more quickly.
Keep in mind, too, that large doses of vitamin С are not entirely without risk. Most of the vitamin С you might take is excreted in the urine after passing through your kidneys. Some people who take thousands of milligrams of vitamin С may be at risk of developing kidney stones, an extraordinarily painful condition that typically lands people in the hospital. Also, the resulting acidity of the urine can be highly irritating, sometimes mimicking the discomfort caused by a urinary tract infection.
Once you feel the first inklings of an incipient cold, taking large doses of vitamin С (perhaps 1,000 milligrams every 4 to 6 hours for a day or two) may suppress cold symptoms and perhaps shorten the illness. Studies suggest that this tactic helps about one-third of those coming down with a cold. But it doesn’t work for all colds, even in those people it usually helps.

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