Vitamin C has long been touted for its potential health benefits when battling a cold — I’m sure we’ve all been told to load up on it when we are sick. But did you know this vitamin is crucial for children’s good health and development? With winter and cold and flu season getting started, it’s important to know what vitamin C does and doesn’t help.

How vitamin C helps your body

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a vitamin found in specific food sources, such as citrus fruits, berries, potatoes and peppers. You can also find Vitamin C as  a dietary supplement.

Vitamin C is important in the formation of:

  • Collagen, blood vessels, cartilage and muscle, and so it helps to maintains the integrity of many body tissues, including the skin.
  • Neurotransmitters, the chemicals that are important for signaling in the nervous system.
  • Carnitine, a chemical that supports the transport and breakdown of fatty acid to generate energy.

In addition, vitamin C is vital to the body’s maintenance of overall health, and is seen in high concentration in immune cells. This raises the possibility that vitamin C is an immune-boosting agent, although the mechanism isn’t clear.

The human body cannot form or produce vitamin C and so depends on outside sources. Plant sources, including tomatoes, peppers, broccoli and kiwi, are the best sources of vitamin C.

Vitamin C is also available as an oral supplement, but over-the-counter sources of vitamins have to be well-researched before taking them on a routine basis. If needed, enlist the help of your physician or pharmacist to choose the right supplement for you.

How to know if you have a vitamin C deficiency

Diagnosis of vitamin C deficiency requires special blood tests, but the main condition caused by deficiency of vitamin C is known as scurvy, and it’s currently very rare. Scurvy was described by the ancient Egyptians, and it was a leading cause of death during long ship voyages in the industrial revolution era.

Since vitamin C is important for formation of collagen, symptoms of scurvy is related to improper deposition of collagen, the main structural protein found in skin and other connective tissues.

People with scurvy may have small brown spots on the skin, roughening of the skin, thickening of the gums and bleeding from the mucous membranes. They also may have a feeling of weakness or discomfort, emotional changes, poor wound healing, bone pain, and in late stages, jaundice, nerve involvement and convulsions.

Vitamin C deficiency is rare in children in developed countries, unless they have severe intestinal malabsorption or poor dietary practices that avoid sources of vitamin C. Scurvy is still seen in developing countries, and is linked to malnutrition.

Can taking vitamin C prevent a cold?

The clear benefit for optimizing intake of vitamin C is to prevent scurvy, especially in children at risk, like those who are malnourished, have limited dietary choices or are at risk for malabsorption.

Much has been discussed on the benefit of vitamin C in preventing the common cold. This topic has been extensively researched, and all the evidence suggests vitamin C does not prevent or helps in treating the common cold.

Though the research evidence is not overwhelming, there is some suggestion that vitamin C may reduce the duration of illness. However, vitamin C supplementation on a routine basis does not decrease the incidence or reduce the severity of a common cold.

It’s on this basis that some physicians recommend vitamin C for the common cold, and given the safety profile and the low cost, it may be OK to take a short course of vitamin C during a cold – but this should be discussed with your physician.

The role of vitamin C in the treatment of rheumatological illness is still unclear. Similarly, using vitamin C in cancer management or prevention is not recommended. The role of vitamin C in prevention of cardiovascular illnesses also is not supported by good evidence.

Overall, vitamin C is an essential nutrient, but overt deficiency is very rare in the United States. Vitamin C may have an immune-boosting effect, and appears to be safe to take as a supplement. And although the medical evidence is not overwhelming, this vitamin may help reduce duration of common cold.

If a parent chooses to give vitamin C to his or her child to reduce the duration of common cold, it’s recommended that they discuss this first with the child’s pediatrician.

It’s ultimately not necessary, and not recommended, to take vitamin C on a daily basis during the winter months as a common cold preventative measure.


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