Sports Drinks Don’t Actually Help When You’re Sick — Here's What To Try Instead

by Eliza Castile

Most of my adult life has been spent realizing my mother was right about pretty much everything, up to and including whether I should bring a jacket — but at last, it looks like maternal wisdom was wrong about something. For instance, according to Texas A&M University, sports drinks don't actually help when you're sick. In fact, if you're wondering what you should drink when you're sick, the truth is that there are more than a few wives' tales that may need clearing up — and that some of it depends on what kind of illness you're dealing with, too.

Before we dig into that, though, it may not come as a surprise that when it comes to staying hydrated while you're sick, water still reigns supreme. "Water is a good drink no matter your illness because it helps clear your body of toxins," Niket Sonpal, an NYC-based internist and gastroenterologist, and adjunct assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, tells Bustle. "Drinking water can also help clear away some types of illnesses by lessening congestion in your body."

That said, you should be mindful of what kind of illness you're dealing with in relation to how you're hydrating.

"When you are sick, you still need to drink plenty of the right fluids to avoid dehydration," Dr. Sonpal tells Bustle. "Hot liquids, like a warm cup of herbal tea do help to clear congestion. Hot drinks can provide immediate and sustained relief from a runny nose, coughing, sneezing, a sore throat, chilliness, and fatigue."

On the other hand, sports drinks — the oft-used cure-all from childhood — might not be as effective as you'd hope, particularly when it comes to the flu.

In the wake of emergency facilities that lacked intravenous fluids using sports drinks to help rehydrate patients suffering from the flu in January 2018, John D. Bowman, MS Pharm, a professor at Texas A&M's pharmacy school, told Vital Record that the problem lies in the drink's sugar content. "The basic deficiency in [these] beverages... for illness-related dehydration is that there is too much sugar and not enough salt (sodium) or potassium," he told Vital Record. He went on to explain that sports drinks are fine to drink after exercise, but they are "not recommended for those with fever, diarrhea or vomiting."

Your kidneys are always working to maintain a proper balance of water and electrolytes like sodium and potassium. (While salt has a reputation for being dehydrating, in the proper ratio, it's actually important in water retention as well as blood pressure and volume.) With their mixture of sugar and minerals, sports drinks aim to replace electrolytes that are easily lost through sweat during exercise. It should follow, then, that they would be ideal to stay hydrated when you're ill, but they may not replace fluids efficiently enough.

That said, this particular circumstance was focused on a crisis situation, not someone enduring the flu at home. While it may be a good idea to avoid sports drinks to rehydrate from illnesses going forward, the CDC does recommend sticking to clear drinks like water or broth, and avoiding drinks with alcohol or caffeine in them, which may dehydrate you further.

Of course, if you're worried about dehydration or flu symptoms, get in touch with your doctor — particularly if your dehydration symptoms are getting worse. The CDC notes that in both children and adults, these symptoms can include dry eyes, the inability to make tears, dark colored urine or less frequent urination, blood in vomit or stool, and an increased heart rate, all of which merit a call to your doctor to come up with a treatment plan for your specific circumstance.

This post was first published on January 31, 2018. It was updated on June 18, 2019.