Self Care Pharmacy Blog


Can Probiotics Help Prevent the Common Cold?

December 2nd, 2013

by Andrea Bashore, PharmD student

There are many types of illnesses caused by respiratory tract infections. One that we are all familiar with is the common cold. About 22 million school days are lost in America due to this sickness, and it is the leading cause of doctor’s visits and missed days of work.1 It is common for adults to contract three to four colds each year, while the elderly and young have a higher risk of catching four to six colds annually.1 An article on Natural Standard has proposed that probiotics, or “good” bacteria, can help reduce the risk for upper respiratory tract infections.2 Common ways to prevent a cold may be washing one’s hands frequently, getting plenty of rest, or dressing appropriately for cold weather. In addition to these things, it has now been found that probiotics can be an added measure against catching a cold. Most of us have probably seen probiotics advertised on yogurt such as Activia. There have been several health benefit claims about these good bacteria, and one of the most common uses is for gastric and intestinal illnesses.3 Other benefits are alleviation of lactose intolerance and food allergies, blood pressure control, and control of inflammation in arthritis.3 Along with these benefits, research has found a new use for probiotics.

The article “Probiotics May Reduce the Risk of Respiratory Tract Infections” discusses a study with new findings. Researchers recruited 465 people to participate in the study.3 They separated the participants into three different groups with the first receiving a probiotic, the second receiving a different probiotic, and the third receiving a placebo.3 The group who took probiotic BI-04 showed a significantly lower risk for an upper respiratory illness compared to the placebo group.3 Because of this comparison the researches concluded that it was an effective supplement for preventing colds.

Along with this research, there has been more evidence that supports this idea of cold prevention with probiotics. Bacteria in the nasal cavity cause upper respiratory infections, and a study in Switzerland took this into account when testing probiotics.4 They concluded that probiotics decrease the amount of this potentially illness causing bacteria.4 Another study focused on children in day care centers. They tested the same probiotics as the Switzerland study, and their results showed that use of the probiotics substantially reduced the number of respiratory tract infections in the study’s population.1

Though the conclusions from each of these articles support the claim of probiotics preventing respiratory tract infections, they cannot make the claim that probiotics directly cause this prevention. This is what the evidence shows, but we cannot say that this is a cause and effect since the articles do not give a full explanation of how this kind of good bacteria is working to prevent infection. The probiotics do not make any direct contact with the nasal cavity, though the results showed prevention of bacteria in this area.1 Even with this limitation, I would agree that probiotics are helpful and would suggest this to others. A meta-analysis done on probiotic therapy for diarrhea reported that out of four different studies no serious adverse effects were reported.5 While I believe that more studies need to be done on the safety and adverse effects of probiotics, they have not been reported to be harmful. If simply eating yogurt everyday or taking a probiotic supplement can help someone’s health through the cold season, I would gladly suggest this. I don’t think it is necessary for every person to do this, but it is something that I would recommend. There are many other ways to help prevent colds, and this is simply and additional preventative measure. Encouraging patients to take probiotics to prevent colds also opens the door to inform them of other health benefits that they may not have known.

The common cold puts a damper on our everyday lives, and using probiotics to prevent respiratory tract infections is a step towards a healthier population. This is such a simple way that we can help our communities fight the cold season.3 As pharmacists, we can easily encourage our patients to take probiotics to help prevent a cold. Can we confidently tell patients that this will be effective? How as pharmacist can we properly inform patients on probiotics and the benefits they provide? Through research and educating ourselves on this topic we can hope to better the health of our community.



  1. Snovak N, Abdović S, Szajewska H, Mišak Z, Kolaček S. Lactobacillus GG in the prevention of gastrointestinal and respiratory tract infections in children who attend day care centers: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Clinical Nutrition. 2010; 29: 312-316. Available at: Accessed November 2, 2013.
  2. Probiotics May Reduce the Risk of Respiratory Tract Infections. Natural Standard. 2013. Available at: Accessed November 2, 2013.
  3. Parvez S, Malik KA, Kang A, Kim Y. Probiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health. Journal of Applied Microbiology. 2006; 100: 1171-1185. Available at: Accessed November 2, 2013.
  4. Glück U, Gebbers J. Ingested probiotics reduce nasal colonization with pathogenic bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and hemolytic streptococci). The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003;77: 517-520. Available at: Accessed November 2, 2013.
  5. Nandini D, Costa V, MacGregor M, Brophy J. Probiotic therapy for the prevention and treatment of Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhea: a systematic review. Canadian Medical Assiciation Journa. 2005; 173: 167-179. Available at: Accessed November 25, 2013.


5 Responses to “Can Probiotics Help Prevent the Common Cold?”

  1. Rachel Kunze Says:

    I had never heard of probiotics being used to prevent upper respiratory infections, so this post was interesting to read. I agree with the author that finding a good way to prevent colds would be a major step towards a healthier population. To answer the questions that were asked, I would recommend use of probiotics, but also make my patients aware of the limitations. I would first educate my patients about the good bacteria in our bodies that help fight infection and how probiotics provide them. However, from my knowledge the common cold is caused by a virus, so I am uncertain if the “good” bacteria that probiotics provide would help fight off viral infections. More research would need to be done before giving my patients a yes or no answer if they are seeking cold prevention measures. However, I can see from the evidence the author provided that probiotics do offer a lot of benefits so recommending probiotics would be helpful for certain uses as well as overall health.

  2. Trevor Stump Says:

    I agree with the author’s prospective on probiotic recommendation. Since it appears they have been proven to be safe and at least have the potential to prove effective I don’t see any harm in recommending them for the preventative treatment of colds. It would be interesting to have more information on the mechanism through which these bacteria work to prevent an upper respiratory infection, but the evidence does seem to support their effectiveness. I think in recommending such a treatment it is important for a pharmacist to outline the potential limitations, explaining that the evidence is not yet conclusive and patients may not experience any benefit from the treatment.

  3. Jinwon Byun Says:

    I heard other effects of probiotics, but I do not know that probiotics prevents upper respiratory infections. If I can provide colds with probiotics containing yogurt or supplement, I definitely like to try it. I cannot strongly tell patients that probiotics will be effective unless more studies prove the effectiveness and show the mechanism of probiotics. But, I will recommend to my patients as a future pharmacist, since probiotics do not have serious side effects. To provide more information about probiotics, we can make a pamphlet or a poster about probiotics and effectiveness and put them in a pharmacy, so patients who come to the pharmacy can read about probiotics. Also, we can advertise about effects of probiotics to let people aware.

  4. Eric Huseman Says:

    From the evidence presented in this blog post, it appears that pharmacists have good reasons to suggest that patients take probiotics for the purpose of fighting the common cold. While the pharmacist may not want to guarantee that the probiotic will prevent the patient from catching a cold, I believe that a pharmacist could reasonably recommend such products based on the lack of serious side effects reported in the four articles from the referenced meta-analysis and the other health benefits of probiotics referred to in the blog post; one might reason that, even if the probiotic does not prevent the common cold, at least it provides the patient with other potential health benefits. Perhaps my biggest question regarding this new use for probiotics is wondering which commercially available products will be effective for combating the common cold. I wonder what commercially available products correspond to the products used in the studies referred to in the post. Personally, I would feel more confident recommending a probiotic for the purpose of preventing colds if I knew that the particular product (or at least the ingredients in the product) that I was recommending had been shown effective for this purpose by researchers.

  5. Eric Huseman Says:

    I looked at the following to articles when formulating my comment:

    Daniels, Stephen. Probiotics (BI-04) may reduce common cold risk in active adults: Clinical trial. e-newsletter. Available from Published October 14, 2013. Accessed December 5, 2013.

    Probiotics may reduce the risk of respiratory tract infections. Natural Standard Web site. Available from
    news201310010.asp. Accessed 5 December, 2013. [This is the Natural Standard article referenced in the blog post]

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