When you’re miserable and sniffling and sneezing, you may be ready to try anything — anything — to make it stop. Or maybe you would do anything to prevent those symptoms from starting. Science weighs in on using zinc to fight and prevent colds.

Runny nose, sore throat, aches and congestion are the all too familiar symptoms of the common cold. You’ve tried chicken soup, decongestant pills and tea with honey, but your cold symptoms still stubbornly persist. Then someone helpfully tells you to try zinc. Should you? Here’s everything you need to know.

What is zinc?

Zinc is a mineral your body needs in order for your immune system to function properly, among other things. It’s found naturally in proteins, including red meat, chicken, oysters, beans and nuts.

How does zinc help you fight a cold?

Some studies (including one published in the Journal of American Pharmacists Association and one in the Oxford Journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases) have shown that zinc prevents the rhinovirus (the virus that’s responsible for the common cold) by strengthening your nasal passages. If you take zinc lozenges or syrup at the onset of your cold symptoms every two to four hours, you may be able to cut your cold short by one day.

Any downside?

While your cold may be shorter, that sniffling and sneezing won’t improve in the interim. Plus, some people complain they don’t like the taste of zinc (described as metallic), it can make you nauseous and it may also reduce the effectiveness of any antibiotics or diuretics you may take, cautions the National Institutes of Health.

If taste is an issue, can’t I just take a pill or use a nasal spray?

The coating that a zinc lozenge or syrup leaves on your tongue and throat may actually be part of what makes it effective; that’s how it comes into physical contact with the rhinovirus. As for that nasal spray, it may make you lose your sense of smell, potentially permanently, which is reason alone not to use it. The United States Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about these products in 2009.

So, what’s the final word?

If you’re able to start taking zinc at the very first signs of your cold and it doesn’t upset your stomach, it’s likely safe for you to use it as a preventative measure. If you have any concerns, reach out to your doctor.

If you are in the Los Angeles area and are looking for exceptional care from some of the top physicians in the world, be sure to schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting http://www.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.