To date, research on whether taking vitamin E supplements can help elderly people ward off common infections, such as colds and the flu, has yielded mixed results. Some research has suggested that elderly people living in nursing homes may benefit from daily vitamin E supplementation. Now, research published in the August 14, 2002 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association provides another piece of the puzzle. The findings of this study suggest that elderly people living independently do not gain protection against colds and the flu by taking vitamin E daily. In fact, this study suggests that vitamin E supplements may even lengthen the duration of colds and flu and increase the severity of symptoms.

About the study

Researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands studied 652 Dutch men and women aged 60 or older who did not live in nursing homes. People were excluded from this study if they took immunosuppressive drugs, anticoagulants that interfere with vitamin metabolism, or dietary supplements in the previous two months. Other reasons for exclusion included history of cancer, liver disease, or a disorder of fat absorption in the last five years.

Upon entering the study, participants completed a questionnaire about vitamin supplement use and underwent blood testing to measure levels of vitamins E, A, and C in their blood. Participants were randomly assigned to take one of the following treatments twice daily: multivitamins-minerals, vitamin E supplements, both, or a placebo (inactive) pill.

Throughout the study period, each participant kept a diary of cold/flu symptoms. They recorded onset, duration, and severity according to thorough instructions provided by the research staff. They also reported their symptoms to a study nurse via telephone and took their own body temperatures.

After an average follow-up of 15 months, researchers compared the number of colds/flus among the four groups, as well as the duration and severity of these infections.

The findings

People taking multivitamins-minerals, vitamin E, or both caught just as many colds and flus as people taking placebo. In fact, vitamin E users who caught a cold or flu had more symptoms and were more likely to have a fever and experience activity restrictions than nonusers. And, on average, infections in vitamin E users lasted 5 days longer than in nonusers.

Although these results seem to indicate that daily vitamin E supplementation worsens colds and the flu, this study has its limitations. First, all participants were over age 60 and living independently, so it’s not clear how these findings might apply to younger people or people living in nursing homes. Second, the study participants had adequate levels of vitamin E, A, and C in their blood before the study began. It’s possible that people who are deficient in certain vitamins might respond differently to supplementation. Third, because people self-reported their symptoms, rather than seeing a physician, allergy symptoms could have been misclassified as cold or flu symptoms. However, testing of nasal secretions for the presence of viral infection in a subgroup of participants did suggest that symptoms were generally classified appropriately. Finally, the role of dietary factors in this study is unknown because dietary information was not collected.

How does this affect you?

Should you skip the extra vitamin E supplement? Yes, if you’re taking it to reduce your risk of catching a cold or flu. These findings suggest that, among elderly people who are not deficient in vitamins E, A, and C, taking a vitamin E supplement does not help ward off these infections. And in fact, it may worsen the illness.

While research suggests that multivitamin, mineral, and vitamin E supplementation may enhance the immune system, it’s not clear that taking a vitamin E supplement will help prevent colds and the flu.

Remember, the people in this study were not deficient in vitamin E. To ensure that you don’t become deficient in any essential nutrients, eat a balanced diet. This will help you stay in overall good health, and it may even help you avoid cold and flu infections, as well.