Taking vitamin C may ease symptoms of the common cold and reduce the disease's spread, suggests a study that supports a popular notion about the vitamin's effect.

When 16 college students mingled with cold sufferers in an effort to catch colds, those who were taking vitamin C supplements showed fewer coughs, nose blows and sneezes, researcher Elliot Dick said last week.

Dick, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Medical School, was interviewed after he presented his work Thursday at the 1987 International Symposium on Medical Virology in Anaheim, Calif.

The work was funded by Hoffman-La Roche Inc., of Nutley, N.J., which sells vitamin C in bulk to companies that make supplements and other products.

"In a well-controlled trial, vitamin C certainly ameliorates significantly the symptoms of the people we worked with, {but} it's really just one study," Dick said.

More research must be done before any effect of the vitamin on colds can be considered proven, said Dick. "The vitamin C literature is replete with positive and negative results."

Other vitamin C researchers said Friday the study was small and needs to be followed up, but one said results are promising enough for further study.

The idea that vitamin C might help against colds was promoted years ago by Linus Pauling, who has won Nobel prizes in chemistry and in peace, but studies on the question have come up with mixed results.

Dick said that in contrast to his study, most previous work has been in large field trials "where there was always a difficulty in compliance of the people in taking vitamins, and there are a bunch of viruses going around."

Starting about a month before their exposure to cold sufferers, eight volunteers were administered four 500-milligram vitamin C supplements a day by experimenters. The other eight took placebos. Neither the volunteers nor the experimenters knew which was being given to the volunteers.

The volunteers then spent a week with eight people who had colds caused by rhinovirus 16, even sleeping in the same dormitory rooms.

By one week after exposure to the cold sufferers, the virus had spread to all but two men who took vitamins and one who took a placebo.

But volunteers who took vitamin C showed only one third as many coughs as those who had taken the placebo, Dick reported. They also had substantially fewer nose blowings and sneezes.