With the ever-changing nature of all things COVID, combined with the blizzard of misinformation that’s out there, it’s tough to keep up with best ways to take care of yourself when you’re sick with the coronavirus.
One of the things it can be hard to parse is whether it’s safe to take vitamins when you’re dealing with SARS-CoV-2. At one point, experts thought it might be unsafe to take certain supplements, like vitamin D, when infected, fearing it could make the immune system go haywire. But evidence soon found the opposite to be true: Vitamin D may actually help people recover more smoothly from upper respiratory infections like COVID.
So, what’s the consensus now? Is it OK to keep taking your vitamins when you have COVID, or is best to put off your supplements for a few days while you recover?
How vitamins interact with COVID infections
Vitamins can definitely affect your immune system, but whether or not you should keep taking your vitamins when you’re sick really depends on what you’re taking and what you’re infected with. That’s according to Dana Ellis Hunnes, a clinical dietitian, assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and author of “Recipe for Survival.”
For example, it’s known that iron supplements can complicate bacterial infections and contribute to inflammation in certain patients, Hunnes said. And various one-off case reports have found that some herbal supplements, like echinacea, potentially triggered flare-ups in people previously diagnosed with autoimmune disorders when they ingested said supplement for an upper respiratory infection.
During the pandemic, some health experts have said that you don’t actually want to “boost your immune system” when you’re fighting an inflammatory infection like COVID. But according to Hannah Schroeder, a general medicine resident physician at Sonoran University who focuses on naturopathic medicine, it’s unlikely that your daily vitamins, at the proper dosages, will overstimulate your immune response.
“Although it makes sense that immune-stimulating vitamins and supplements seem like they could potentially be too stimulating, in general, this doesn’t seem to trigger immune system overreactions most of the time,” Schroeder said.
At typical dosages, your vitamins likely won’t have a detrimental effect on your immune response, Hunnes explained. In fact, for many people, supplements — like omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics, and even echinacea — help improve immune function by fighting viruses and reducing inflammation. Vitamin D, for example, is consistently associated with better COVID outcomes, according to Schroeder.
Studies have indicated that people who had severe COVID or were hospitalized for their infection, in general, had lower levels of vitamin D in their blood. Research has also found that when people deficient in vitamin D took vitamin D supplements, they experienced less severe outcomes and shorter hospital stays.
“The majority of evidence so far seems to suggest that vitamin D itself is not preventative or protective against COVID, but that it can help reduce severity of symptoms,” Schroeder said.
What you should do about vitamins when you get COVID
Many clinical studies are underway to evaluate the effects that supplements have on COVID. But there’s currently no hard evidence suggesting it’s too risky to keep taking your daily vitamins and multivitamins when you’re sick with the virus. As we mentioned above, many vitamins, from omega-3 fatty acids and probiotic to zinc and melatonin, may help with your recovery. You can find a helpful guide from the National Institutes of Health on supplements and COVID here.
Keep in mind that certain supplements can affect how well your body absorbs or metabolizes some medications, so if you take medications for COVID — whether it’s Paxlovid, antibiotics or an over-the-counter drug like guaifenesin or acetaminophen — ask your doctor if there are any contraindications. One to be aware of: St. John’s wort and Paxlovid shouldn’t be taken at the same time.
You also don’t want to unnecessarily ramp up your vitamin regimen when sick. You might consider adding some zinc to your diet — it’s been shown to shorten symptom duration — but you should be intentional about the dosages you’re consuming. Too strong a dose can cause unpleasant side effects, like insomnia, rapid heart rate, diarrhea and stomach cramping. In very high amounts, it can lead to toxicity.
“More isn’t always better,” Hunnes said. You can learn more about the ideal dosages for different vitamins here.
If you do decide to stop taking your vitamins for a week or so, which is the duration of typical wintertime illnesses, the risk is likely minimal.
“For the majority of people, especially if you’re taking something basic like a daily multivitamin or a ‘skin-hair-nails’ vitamin, vitamin B12, vitamin C, there’s no significant danger to putting a pause on your intake of these vitamins for a few days or weeks while sick,” Schroeder said.
If you take vitamins for serious vitamin or mineral deficiencies, or an underlying malabsorption disorder — like short-gut syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease — Hunnes and Schroeder both recommend talking to your doctor before you pause your regimen.
“These things should be considered on a case-by-case basis by your doctor,” Schroeder said. “What’s safe and indicated for you might not be what’s safe and indicated for someone else.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.