What to Know About Airborne

A Dietary Supplement Intended to Help Boost Your Immune System

When faced with a cold or flu, people will often turn to over-the-counter (OTC) supplements that promise to "boost" their immune system. One such product is an American dietary brand known as Airborne. It offers a range of supplements composed of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and herbal extracts that are said to offer immune support.

Sold in a variety of formulations—including tablets, lozenges, gummies, chewable tablets, effervescent tablets, and powders—Airborne was initially marketed as an "immune booster" capable of preventing the common cold. Other OTC products have made similar claims, including brands like Emergen-C, NatureMade ImmuneMax, and Zicam Immune Support.

But do products like Airborne actually work? This article takes an unbiased look at the issue, breaking down the ingredients, risks, and what the current research says.

airborne tablets
Bruce Gifford / Getty Images 

What Are Airborne Immune Support Supplements?

Airborne Immune Support supplements were created in the 1990s by Victoria McKnight-McDowell a former schoolteacher, who posited that a combination of natural ingredients could enhance the body's immune function and shield it from minor infections like the common cold.

It seems a logical hypothesis given that certain vitamins (which function as antioxidants) and minerals (which function as electrolytes) are essential to the body's immune defense. On the flip side, a deficiency of amino acids is linked to a weakened immune response.

McKnight-McDowell further added herbal extracts which anecdotal evidence suggests may have immune-boosting properties.

Today, there are no less than 20 different Airborne formulations, some with flavors like blueberry-pomegranate or pink grapefruit and others with ingredients or additives such as elderberry. There is even one formulation directly marketed to children (called Airborne Kids Assorted Fruit Flavored Immune Support Gummies).

Active and Inactive Ingredients

Airborne Original, the brand's cornerstone product, is comprised of 17 nutrients and herbs that serve as its active ingredients:

Arguably, the "backbone" ingredient is vitamin C. Each dose contains 750 milligrams (mg) or 833% of the recommended daily intake (RDI).

Airborne Original also contains inactive ingredients such as maltodextrin, magnesium stearate, microcrystalline cellulose, silicon dioxide, dextrose (sugar), vegetable coloring, and citrus flavoring.

What the Research Says

It is well known that many of Airborne's active ingredients, namely vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, play a central role in the body's immune function.

Whether the amounts delivered in Airborne supplements "boost" the immune system (even in those with nutritional deficiencies) remains unproven.

To start, the vitamins, minerals, and amino acids contained in Airborne are readily obtained in the foods we eat, and, with exception of vitamin C (833% of the RDI), vitamin E (45% of the RDI), and selenium (27% of the RDI), are not delivered at levels much higher than we would obtain with a normal diet. The remaining nutrients fall well below 10% of the RDI.

Even with vitamin C, increasing the amount circulating in your body is no guarantee you won't still get a cold.

Vitamin C and Colds

While vitamin C has long been considered a safeguard against colds, a 2013 review in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found no evidence that vitamin C supplements could reduce the risk of getting a cold (although they may shorten the duration of a cold once you get it).

Similar findings were reported by Cochrane researchers in 2013 with regard to zinc, another popular anti-cold remedy.

With respect to ingredients like echinacea, there have been mixed evidence that it may help shorten (rather than prevent) colds. Even so, a review of studies published in 2014 concluded that the overall evidence is "weak."

There is even less evidence that ginger (or any of the other herbal extracts) offers anything in the way of immune protection against the cold or any other infection.

Is Airborne FDA Approved?

No dietary supplement is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This is because supplements are not regulated in the United States in the same way as prescription drugs. While vitamin supplements are "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS), they are not independently tested by the FDA until there is ample evidence of harm.

The FDA requires supplements like Airborne to carry a disclaimer stating that the product "is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease."

Whenever manufacturers step over the line, legal action can be taken as occurred with the manufacturers of Airborne back in 2008.

2008 Class Action Lawsuit

A class action lawsuit was filed against the manufacturers of Airborne in 2008 citing false and misleading claims that the supplement could cure or prevent colds. The lawsuit, led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, was settled for $23.3 million. While manufacturers have since dropped the claims, they (and other brands) still regularly use the term "immune" on their labels.

Considerations and Risks

Although Airborne supplements are generally safe, they are not for everyone. People who are pregnant or nursing should not take Airborne unless instructed to do so by their healthcare provider. The same applies to children under four. (Airborne Kids Gummies is only recommended for children four and over.)

There are few side effects associated with Airborne, but the manufacturer warns that some people may experience "sensitivity to any of the vitamins or herbal extract" ingredients. Sensitivity refers to both allergies and general intolerance of the ingredients (manifesting with stomach upset, nausea, or diarrhea).

Airborne should be used with caution in people with diabetes, particularly children with diabetes, as it does contain sugar.

Certain vitamins, minerals, and herbal medicines can interact with other drugs. Talk to your healthcare provider before taking Airborne if you use any of the following:

  • Antacids
  • Antibiotics
  • Anticoagulants ("blood thinners") like warfarin
  • Diuretics ("water pills")
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil (ibuprofen) or aspirin
  • Sulfa drugs
  • Tretinoin or isotretinoin (vitamin A derivatives)

Summary

Airborne is a brand of supplements containing vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and herbs that the manufacturers suggest can support immune health. While it was once actively promoted as an "immune-booster" able to cure or prevent colds, there is no evidence to support the claims.

A Word From Verywell

If you want to prevent colds during cold and flu season, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you and your children take standard precautions such as staying away from people who are sick, washing your hands frequently, and avoiding touching your nose, mouth, or eyes with unwashed hands.

If you do get a cold, keep away from others until you feel better. Get lots of rest, and drink plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter medicines can help ease symptoms but will not make a cold go away any faster.

There is no cure for the common cold.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. McGill University Office of Science and Society. Is “Airborne” effective against the common cold?

  2. Ruth MR, Field CJ. The immune modifying effects of amino acids on gut-associated lymphoid tissue. J Anim Sci Biotechnol. 2013;4(1):27. doi:10.1186/2049-1891-4-27

  3. Hemila H, Chalker E. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jan 31;2013(1):CD000980. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4

  4. Singh M, Das RR. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jun 18;(6):CD001364. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD001364.pub4

  5. Karsch-Volk M, Barrett B, Kiefer D, Bauer R, Ardjomand-Woelkart K, Linde K. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Feb 20;2(2):CD000530. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD000530.pub3

  6. Anh NH, Kim SJ, Long NP, et al. Ginger on human health: a comprehensive systematic review of 109 randomized controlled trials. Nutrients. 2020 Jan;12(1):157. doi:10.3390/nu12010157

  7. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Dietary supplements.

  8. CNN. Airborne settles lawsuit for $23.3 million.

  9. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Mixing medications and dietary supplements can endanger your health.

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common colds: protect yourself and others.

By Kristina Duda, RN
Kristina Duda, BSN, RN, CPN, has been working in healthcare since 2002. She specializes in pediatrics and disease and infection prevention.