What Should You Drink When You’re Sick? Sports Drinks Aren’t Your Best Option, According To An Expert

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. According to a Texas A&M pharmacy professor, sports drinks don't actually help when you're sick. So if you're one of the thousands of Americans unfortunate enough to catch the flu during this particularly fierce flu season, put down the electrolyte-ade you've been knocking back like the guy who just scored a touchdown at the Super Bowl until you've finished reading.

According to Vital Record, damage to manufacturing facilities in Puerto Rico has caused a shortage of IV saline fluids, which are used in hospitals for rehydration. The good news is that the FDA expects the shortage to improve over the next few months. The bad news is that in the meantime, we're in the middle of a nasty flu season that has left 30 children dead from the illness so far. (According to TIME, the total number of adults who have died from the flu is not yet clear.) John D. Bowman, MS Pharm, a professor at Texas A&M's pharmacy school, told Vital Record that to cope, some facilities have turned to sports drinks to rehydrate patients, but they simply aren't as effective as you would hope.


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.

According to Bowman, the problem is that sports drinks are too delicious — I mean, their sugar content is too high. "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."

Like a good pharmacist, though, he has a suggestion for what to drink instead: the Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS) solution developed by the World Health Organization to combat death by dehydration in developing countries. According to Vital Record, it's easy enough to make. Just combine "one quart water, half teaspoon salt and six level teaspoons of sugar," and add a mashed banana or half a cup of orange juice for extra potassium. Boom! You've now got a solution scientifically shown to help rehydrate your body until the fever, vomiting, and/or diarrhea finally goes away.


Even if you're not sick, you should know that the jury is still out on whether sports drinks are actually necessary. In 2012, the British Medical Journal published several articles putting them on blast, questioning the validity of research in their favor and pointing out that sports drinks contain empty calories. (Next time you spot one at the corner store, check out the sugar content; it may be higher than you realized.) While athletes may have different needs than the rest of the population, the average person can hydrate themselves perfectly well by drinking water until they're not thirsty anymore.

Of course, if you're worried about dehydration or flu symptoms, get in touch with your doctor. The flu season is still in full swing, and it's better safe than hospitalized.