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The Healthy Skeptic: Probiotics could help in cold and flu season


5 Star

The Healthy Skeptic: Probiotics could help in cold and flu season

Our Review Summary

The marketing message of “improving overall immune health” deserves to be scrutinized whenever and wherever it appears.


Why This Matters

We’ve reviewed more than a half dozen stories on probiotics in recent years.  Hype lives on.  So there’s room for healthy skepticism, as in this LA Times column.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?


The story includes the cost of several of the products mentioned.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story reported: “A September 2011 Cochrane Review of 14 studies found “weak” evidence that probiotics could help prevent the common cold and other upper respiratory infections in infants, children and younger adults. And an April 2011 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a Lactobacillus probiotic seemed to improve the immune system’s response following a flu vaccination.”

We would have preferred to read some of the actual data about “how weak” (in the Cochrane Review) and how much improvement in the other study. But we liked that the story quantified, via an independent expert, how many people might expect to avoid a cold by taking probiotics, if these “weak” studies are correct: “perhaps as few as 1 in 30.”


Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The “generally safe” line is too vague for us.  There are side effects and risks associated with probiotic use.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


The article quotes Paul Forsythe, a respiratory specialist and assistant professor of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

“… as Forsythe noted in an April 2011 issue of the journal Chest, most of the research on probiotics has been conducted in mice, and the real-world immunity benefits for humans are uncertain. Companies “are taking evidence from animal studies and stretching their claims,” he says”

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


No disease mongering.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


Independent sources contributed perspectives to this story.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


The story’s second paragraph briefly mentions some options:

“Avoiding germs entirely would require something like solitary confinement or a head-to-toe application of Purell. As an alternative, many people try to do what they can to strengthen their immune systems. Vitamin C is old news, and echinacea and other herbs haven’t really panned out. “

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The availability of these products is clear from the story.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Applicable

Not applicable; no overt claims of novelty were made.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


It’s clear that the story did not rely on a news release.

Total Score: 8 of 9 Satisfactory


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