Instead of waiting to fight illnesses after getting sick, Pam Maltinsky tries to head them off before she catches them.

Maltinsky, 70, takes supplements to boost her immune system. It’s a method Maltinsky swears by and one she said has become even more important as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.

Maltinsky takes a variety of supplements, including an elderberry syrup. Research has shown that elderberry may help decrease inflammation and can help ease cold symptoms.

“I’ve always leaned toward holistic medicine,” Maltinsky said. “I started reading about it and decided there’s nothing much in there that could hurt me.”

It’s true that certain vitamins and supplements can benefit a person’s immune system. But consumers need to make sure they know what they’re buying, said Dr. Terri Wilkerson Riddiford, a primary care doctor at Mount Carmel Medical Group in Dublin, Ohio.

Some of the most advertised products aren’t necessarily the best ones to use, said Wilkerson Riddiford.

Products like Zicam and Emergen-C are some of the most well-known.

Supplements face less scrutiny than drugs, as they aren’t policed by the Food and Drug Administration. Wilkerson Riddiford said consumers may find that some may have more fillers or preservatives than others.

“People are at a heightened level of anxiety because of COVID,” she said. “But you should be careful what you spend your money on.”

Certain foods may also help prevent illness, Wilkerson Riddiford said. Pumpkin seeds, for instance, have a high amount of zinc, which is known to help boost the immune system, she said.

The most beneficial thing people can do to prevent falling ill is to wash their hands, get plenty of sleep and abide by COVID-19 recommendations such as wearing masks in public and keeping a safe distance, said Dr. Seuli Brill, a pediatrician and internal medicine doctor at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

While Brill said there’s some benefit to taking vitamins and supplements, they can also cause problems.

St. John’s Wort, which has been used to treat a variety of conditions including poor sleep or appetite, can interfere with antidepressants, Brill said. And a supplement called Ginkgo biloba can cause upset stomach or skin irritation.

Although supplements aren’t drugs, patients should treat them similarly, Brill said.

Anyone looking to try a new vitamin or supplement for any reason should first talk to their doctor.

Maltinsky said she’s not one to try something new on a whim that she heard about or saw advertised.

“I will research it tremendously,” Maltinsky said of anything new she’s considering. “I’m not going to try just anything that I heard about through the grapevine. I’m very, very careful about that.”

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