7 Foods That Can Make Flu Symptoms Worse (& What To Eat Instead)

Sorry, but coffee’s on the list.

by Eliza Castile and JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
A woman with a thermometer opens a weekly pill container. These 7 foods can make your flu symptoms f...
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There's little as frustrating as huddling on your couch in a nest of blankets and used tissues, knowing there's nothing you can do to mitigate your misery — or is there? Relief may come from an unexpected corner. Oddly enough, some foods may make your flu symptoms worse without you ever realizing it. Your beloved macaroni and cheese might have betrayed you in your time of need.

"The flu often makes consuming food difficult as flu symptoms can either cause nausea or GI symptoms," Kacie Vavrek R.D. L.D., a dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Bustle. "Nausea can decrease the desire to eat and [gastro-intestinal] symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea can be triggered if food is consumed too soon."

The old adage "feed a cold, starve a fever" doesn't hold up under modern medical thought. According to Scientific American, the idea back in the day was that eating will warm you up during a "cold," while fasting cools down a fever. Eating nutrient-dense foods, though, is useful no matter what kind of sickness you've caught. In fact, it's especially important when you have a fever.

But not all food is as helpful. When you have the flu, you may want to stick to a steady diet of ice cream, toast, and chocolate milk, but comfort foods aren't necessarily going to help you get better. In fact, as Vavrek tells Bustle, you probably should avoid your favorite comfort foods, "as you might develop a dislike for these foods if consuming them when nauseated." The more you know.

Here are seven foods to avoid if you have the flu, and what to eat instead to feel better, faster.


Hard-To-Digest Grains

The flu occasionally causes stomach upset, leading to nausea and diarrhea, so you may be tempted to stick to bland foods like pasta and rice. This is a good idea, but be mindful of how your tum handles it.

"You want to stick to easy to digest foods like simple [or] refined carbohydrates," Vavrek says. "Foods like dry saltine crackers, toast and pretzels are easy on your stomach and are most likely to be tolerated when you have the flu." That being said, Vavrek says, foods higher in fiber are also harder to digest, so you might want to avoid them at first. Wait until you're keeping food down before adding oatmeal into the mix.


Sugary Drinks

You might think a vitamin C-rich fruit juice or an electrolyte-packed sports drink are the best things to drink while sick, but these options aren't terribly nutritionally dense.

Dr. David Kahana M.D., a board-certified gastroenterologist with supplement company 1MD, tells Bustle to raid the fruit bowl over the bottle. He particularly recommends "fruits that are rich in vitamin C and water and boost the immune system while providing essential electrolytes and antioxidants." A study in Nutrients in 2017 found that vitamin C plays an important role in your immune system's health, so get yourself some orange juice.


Caffeinated Drinks

Between your elevated temperature and increased sweating, dehydration is something to be wary of when you have a fever. Stay away from diuretics like caffeinated coffee, which can contribute to dehydration.

"Avoid caffeine and alcohol as these can often make symptoms worse," Vavrek says. "You may also want to sip on water or other clear liquids throughout the day to stay hydrated."



Put down the hot toddy. Alcohol is a diuretic just like caffeine, and you don't want to play with dehydration when you have the flu. Scientific American reports that dehydration can dry up mucus in the throat, nose and mouth. In turn, this can make coughing difficult, according to American Family Care.

"The most important thing to do when sick with the flu is drink plenty of liquids, since it can be very dehydrating to have the flu and that makes things worse," Dr. Kahana says. "Drinking soup is one common food that people turn to, as it is rehydrating, comforting, and easy to digest."



Certain supplements like echinacea and zinc are touted as cure-alls, but there's little research to actually support these claims. Consumer Reports looked into the science behind popular supplements in 2017, and found that most supplements aren't really necessary. One supplement not to miss, though? Probiotics, says Dr. Kahana, "can help boost the immune system and stimulate digestion." A study published in mBio in 2020 found the flu can take a toll on your gut biome, so keeping it healthy with probiotics can make your overall digestion feel better.


Greasy Foods

Both Dr. Kahana and Vavrek say that greasy food is hard on the digestion and should be avoided while you're dealing with flu symptoms. "Avoid fried, greasy and oily foods as they are harder on your GI system," Vavrek says.



Dairy may not prolong your cold as your mom told you growing up, but it might make you uncomfortable. Although a review of the science published in 2019 in Archives of Disease in Childhood found that it doesn't actually promote mucus production, there's evidence that dairy makes your phlegm feel thicker and more irritating.


Dr. Daniel Kahana M.D.

Kacie Vavrek R.D. L.D.

Studies cited:

Balfour-Lynn, I.M. (2019) Milk, mucus and myths. Archives of Disease in Childhood 104:91-93.

Carr, A. C., & Maggini, S. (2017). Vitamin C and Immune Function. Nutrients, 9(11), 1211.

Groves, H. T., Higham, S. L., Moffatt, M. F., Cox, M. J., & Tregoning, J. S. (2020). Respiratory Viral Infection Alters the Gut Microbiota by Inducing Inappetence. mBio, 11(1), e03236-19.

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