You've probably heard the hype about Airborne — that it can help prevent and treat the common cold. However, there isn't any scientific evidence to support these claims. Furthermore, Airborne contains large doses of vitamins and minerals that could cause side effects for some people.
What Is Airborne?
Airborne was developed 20 years ago by a school teacher who wanted to bolster her immune system through the school year. She first concocted the supplement in her kitchen, then sold it in local farmers markets before taking it mainstream.
Airborne now offers several different formulas containing a mixture of vitamins, minerals and herbs purported to strengthen immune function. All of the formulas provide the following vitamins and minerals:
- Vitamin C: 1,000 milligrams
- Vitamin A: 600 micrograms
- Vitamin E: 13.5 micrograms
- Magnesium: 40 milligrams
- Zinc: 8 milligrams
- Selenium: 15 mcg
- Manganese: 3 milligrams
Each formula also contains a proprietary blend of herbs, including:
- Forsythia suspensa (fruit)
- Ginger (root)
- Chaste berry
- Echinacea (purpurea_)_
Read more: The 12 Most Overrated Supplements
Airborne's Unknown Effectiveness
National Public Radio reports that the only study on the efficacy of Airborne was conducted by a pharmaceutical services company that started up for the specific purpose of carrying out the research. The study was conducted by two men, neither of whom were doctors or scientists.
In 2008, Airborne makers were required to pay $23.3 million after losing a class-action suit about false advertising. Prior to the lawsuit, Airborne packaging stated it could ward off the common cold, but there was no proof of that statement and it was deemed misleading to consumers. Airborne has since reworded its packaging stating simply that it boosts the immune system.
But there isn't much solid scientific evidence to support that claim, either. Only two of the vitamins and minerals included in the formula have shown some potential.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant nutrient essential for optimal immune function. However, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there is only inconsistent evidence that supplemental vitamin C can prevent or treat the common cold. Some studies have shown a minor reduction in the duration of colds in the general population.
One group that can benefit from vitamin C supplementation is those involved in intense physical activity, such as skiers, marathon runners and soldiers. Lastly is those who are deficient in vitamin C — though this is rare. In the case of a deficiency, vitamin C will strengthen the immune system and prevent frequent infections.
The mineral zinc is also vital for healthy immune function. In fact, like Airborne, zinc lozenges are marketed for the purpose of stemming a cold at the first sign of symptoms. According to Mayo Clinic, there is evidence that zinc may help by stopping the rhinovirus — the virus that causes most colds — from multiplying in the nasal passages. However, the research isn't yet solid enough to recommend the treatment for the general population, even though it's sold on many grocery store shelves.
There are more tenuous associations — if any — with the other vitamins and minerals included in the Airborne formula. There is certainly not enough evidence to support the original claims made by Airborne manufacturers, but they have managed to sidestep that with the new wording.
Excess Vitamin C Side Effects
Taking a single dose of Airborne won't cause problems for most people. It contains less than 100 percent of the daily value (DV) for all vitamins and minerals except for vitamin C and manganese. For these two nutrients, it provides 1,000 milligrams and 3 milligrams, respectively.
That amount of vitamin C provides 1,111 percent of the DV. Although that sounds like a lot, it's not a dangerous amount. According to NIH, short-term intakes of large amounts of vitamin C aren't likely to be toxic or have serious adverse effects. Mild gastrointestinal effects such as diarrhea, nausea and abdominal cramps are common, however.
However the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academies of Medicine has set an upper intake limit (UL) for vitamin C of 2,000 milligrams per day for men and women, because long-term high intakes of the nutrient may increase the risk of more serious adverse effects.
One dose, or four tablets, of Airborne has half the UL for vitamin C — not a problem if you're taking only one dose a day. However, if you take more than one dose daily, you risk reaching or surpassing the UL. If you take other supplements containing vitamin C, you may be well exceeding the UL on a regular basis.
Read more: The 10 Best Supplements
Too Much Manganese
The Linus Pauling Institute reports that there is little risk of manganese toxicity from supplemental intake. The Food and Nutrition Board has set a UL of 11 milligrams per day for men and women, due to the risk of neurotoxicity symptoms; however, this risk is primarily from drinking water containing high levels of manganese. The 3 milligrams of manganese in a serving of Airborne shouldn't cause a problem unless you take several servings a day for an extended period of time.
Certain populations may be more susceptible to manganese toxicity, including:
People with liver disease: Manganese is eliminated from the body through bile, and impaired liver function can cause manganese to build up in the blood.
Newborns: The newborn brain may be at increased risk for manganese toxicity. An immature liver may also result in decreased elimination of the mineral.
Children: Infants and children have increased intestinal absorption of manganese compared to adults, as well as decreased excretion. The Linus Pauling Institute reports that there have been cases of cognitive and behavioral effects in school-aged children exposed to excess manganese.
People with iron deficiency: Low levels of iron have been shown to increase manganese accumulation in the brain.
It is impossible to assess the effectiveness and safety of the herbal ingredients in Airborne because the amounts of the individual herbs are not listed. Although herbs have been widely used to treat various health concerns, as an alternative medicine, there is no conclusive data on whether or not they actually work.
Similarly, there isn't a lot of information on potential side effects. Both ginger and echinacea can cause stomach upset and other negative digestive effects. Some people may have allergic reactions — potentially severe — to echinacea. Ginger may interact with certain medications, and it may not be safe for some pregnant women, according to the NIH.
Do You Need Airborne?
Due to the dearth of research on Airborne's effectiveness, it's not clear whether taking the supplement will have any measurable effect on immune function or warding off the common cold. In general, there is little evidence that, in the absence of a deficiency, supplemental vitamins and minerals provide any added health benefit beyond those found naturally in foods.
Most Americans can get all the nutrients they need from eating a healthy diet, and you can, too. Rather than spending money on pills that may or may not have any effect on your health, it's a better idea to invest in healthy foods. Unlike supplements, whole foods provide other nutrients you need for good health that you can't get in pill form, such as protein for strong muscles, dietary fiber for digestive health and healthy fats for optimal heart function.
- Schiff: "Airborne"
- Mayo Clinic: "Zinc for Colds: The Final Word?"
- National Academies of Medicine: "Summary Tables, Dietary Reference Intakes"
- NIH: "Vitamin C"
- NPR: "Airborne Settles Suit over False Claims"
- Schiff: "Airborne Citrus Chewable Tablets 116 Ct"
- Oregon State University: "Manganese"
- NIH: "Echinacea"
- NIH: "Ginger"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Is There Really Any Benefit to Multivitamins?"