Vitamin E Supplementation and Respiratory Infections in the Elderly.





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Colds and influenza are the two conditions that affect us on a yearly basis. While a minor irritation for most people, these two conditions can pose a major health threat to the very young, the elderly, and those who are immunocompromised. In fact, the flu is a leading cause of death in the elderly. Americans spend over one billion dollars annually on nonprescription treatments for coughs and colds, including antipyretics, antihistamines, cough preparations, and decongestants in various combinations. Although these agents may help the symptoms of colds and flu to subside gradually, they do not address the underlying condition, including immune and nutrition status.

The common cold, also known as upper respiratory infection (URI), is an acute, self-limiting illness caused by a virus. URIs cause absenteeism from work, accounting for 45 million days of restricted activity in 1996.1 A recent resurgence in the use of nutritional supplements including herbs, vitamins, minerals, and homeopathic medicines has provided new options for the support of cold and flu symptoms as well as for prevention. These agents may not prevent a cold, but may result in less severe symptoms and a decreased need for nonprescription or prescription medications. The purpose of herbs and nutritional agents are to improve host defenses before and during viral invasion. By improving immune functionality and host integrity, the individual stands a better chance of fighting off the infection, or at the very least reducing the severity of symptoms associated with a cold or the flu.

Recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers investigated the role of vitamin E supplementation and the occurrence of colds in the elderly. This one-year study enrolled 617 participants at least 65 years or older. This group received a multi-vitamin and either 200 IU of vitamin E or placebo. Researchers collected data on the incidence and the number of days with upper and lower respiratory tract infections and the number of antibiotic prescriptions prescribed to treat these infections. The results showed that vitamin E showed no improvement in the number of infections or the number of days being sick. However, it was shown that vitamin E supplementation did reduce the occurrence of the common cold when compared to those taking the placebo. The authors concluded that although there was no effect on upper respiratory infections, vitamin E did show a protective effect against the common cold.2


1. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, National Institute of Health. Common Cold Fact Sheet. Mar2001.
2. Meydani SN, et al. Vitamin E and Respiratory Tract Infections in Elderly Nursing Home Residents. JAMA. Aug 2004;292(7):828-836.