On the Shelf Video Series - Episode 4

On the Shelf: Immune Support

Joanna Lewis, PharmD, MBA, presents data from the Pharmacy Times’ OTC Guide and explains the pharmacist recommended options for over-the-counter immune support supplements.

Joanna Lewis, PharmD, MBA: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Pharmacy Times’® On the Shelf. In this series we are exploring some information about a variety of over-the-counter products that both affect consumers and provide opportunities for pharmacists to share their insights.

Products featured in this series come from the Pharmacy Times® OTC Guide®. Now in its 25th year, the guide features pharmacists’ top recommended products and brands, covering more than 800 specific products from 148 categories based on a national survey. Pharmacy Times® also partners with U.S. News & World Report, an authority in rankings and consumer advice, to bring these pharmacist recommendations to consumers nationwide.

With that said, let’s see what’s on the shelf.

Today we are going to talk about immune support and ways that we can promote immunity and keep our bodies healthy. A healthy immune system is the first step of attack against outside invaders such as bacteria or viruses. When your immune system is strong, you are more likely to be able to ward off sickness. During this time of cold and flu season, the best things that we can do to prioritize our health and immune function are getting enough sleep, consistently exercising, staying hydrated, managing our stress, and not letting ourselves get too worn down. And of course, the best way to prevent illness is by washing your hands and avoiding contact with those who are sick.

There are also several supplements that people take to strengthen the body’s immune response either by taking them regularly or at the onset of cold symptoms. These supplements usually contain ingredients like vitamin D, C, zinc, elderberry, echinacea, or garlic.

Based on the 2021 OTC Guide® provided by Pharmacy Times®, it is estimated that there are over 822,000 recommendations made by pharmacists for immune support vitamins and supplements each month. Among immune support vitamins and supplements, Emergen-C was the brand pharmacists recommended most often.

Emergen-C has long been the go-to supplement for travelers and others who needed to get some additional immune support. Packed with vitamin C and other essential nutrients, Emergen-C is a powder that dissolves quickly in water and comes in a variety of flavors. Airborne is another product that 31% of pharmacists recommend for immune support. Airborne contains Vitamin C, zinc, herbals, and amino acids and is best taken proactively before the signs and symptoms of a cold appear.

A healthy, balanced lifestyle is one of the key preventative things we can do to support our immune function. By exercising regularly, eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, and managing our stress, we will be better fortified to head into cold and flu season.

When you do feel that your diet may not be giving you all the essential nutrients that you need, or you are looking for an extra boost, there are some things to look for when grabbing an immune support product.

Zinc taken orally may help to treat colds, but it can cause side effects and interact with medicines. A 2015 analysis of clinical trials found that oral zinc helps to reduce the length of colds when taken within 24 hours after symptoms start. Oral zinc can cause nausea and other gastrointestinal symptoms. Long-term use of zinc, especially in high doses, can cause problems such as copper deficiency. Zinc may interact with drugs, including antibiotics and penicillamine (a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis).

Vitamin C does not prevent colds and only slightly reduces their length and severity. A 2013 review of scientific literature found that taking vitamin C regularly did not reduce the likelihood of getting a cold but was linked to small improvements in cold symptoms. The results can vary greatly from person to person. People with kidney disease should not take Vitamin C supplements unless directed by a doctor.

Echinacea is an herbal supplement that some people use to treat or prevent colds. Research is not conclusive if it prevents the duration or severity of a cold, but we do know that echinacea has anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antioxidant properties. Echinacea products vary widely, containing different parts of the echinacea plant. In addition, echinacea has not been shown to reduce the number of colds that adults catch. Only a small amount of research on echinacea has been done in children, and the results of that research are inconsistent.

Elderberry is also a supplement that has been used for centuries and Sambucol (which contains elderberry) was the third most recommended supplement for immune support in the OTC guide. Some preliminary research suggests that elderberry may relieve symptoms of flu or other upper respiratory infections. Elderberry has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as well.

B vitamins, Vitamin D and garlic are other supplements that pharmacists often recommend to support immune function.

Most of all, when choosing a supplement, stick to the package dosing and make sure that you talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking prescription medications (to avoid interactions).

That’s it for this episode of “On the Shelf.” Thank you for watching. Keep an eye out for our next episode. In the meantime, check out more pharmacist recommendations and practical information at www.OTCguide.net and at www.PharmacyTimes.com.

Transcript edited for clarity.