Oak Street Health is part of CVS Healthspire™

10 Foods To Eat When Sick With Flu: What To Eat and What to Avoid

Written by 
Lacey Ramburger
Reviewed by 
Melissa Frost, NP

Article at a glance

  • Cold and flu symptoms can be challenging to deal with, and a lack of appetite may be among the side effects involved.
  • While medications are necessary to treat illness, certain foods and beverages can help ease and relieve cold and flu symptoms.
  • Certain foods and drinks can help you stay hydrated and receive essential vitamins and nutrients that help your body fight sickness and symptoms, while some options can worsen the issue.

What Is The Flu?

While we may have all developed a case in our lifetime, what exactly is the flu? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs.” The flu can range from mild to severe and can be fatal if left untreated. It’s recommended that a person receive a flu vaccination each year to help prevent contracting the illness.

While the flu is manageable, it can result in unpleasant symptoms, including:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Fatigue 
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Headaches

Some people may also experience vomiting/​nausea or diarrhea, though this isn’t as common in adults. 

Can What You Eat Manage Flu Symptoms?

Despite having a lower appetite when we become sick from the cold, flu, or upper respiratory infections, a food diet can play a significant role in healing from and managing cold and flu symptoms.

When your body is sick, it needs nourishment and nutrients more than ever to help ensure a full and speedy recovery. Certain nutritious foods and beverages can help with symptoms such as sore throat, body aches, or intestinal issues. Some options contain vitamins and essential nutrients that help bolster your immune system, which can help prevent illnesses from getting worse.

10 Foods To Eat When Sick With Flu

Plain, Warm Broth

Warm broth in varieties such as beef, vegetable, or chicken can be beneficial and nutritious when fighting flu symptoms. The warmth of the broth can help soothe a sore throat and help relieve congestion, and it can also help alleviate dehydration.

Ice Pops

Ice pops are a delicious alternative to help keep you hydrated, and some find that cold foods can numb the pain associated with a dry or swollen throat. It’s best to consume 100% fruit juice ice pops instead of sugar-filled options, as fruit pops contain vitamins your body can use when recovering from sickness.

Chicken Soup

While scientific evidence is still needed to back up the complete healing properties of chicken soup for illness, there can still be some benefits from eating it when sick. Chicken soup contains several ingredients ideal for healing from the flu: broth to help soothe your throat and relieve congestion, chicken can be a good source of lean protein, and carrots, celery, and onions all provide sources of vitamin A and vitamin C.

If you’re vegan or vegetarian, swapping the chicken with cooked tofu can help with protein intake.

Fruits & Vegetables 

Eating fruits and vegetables is important when dealing with flu symptoms because they are rich in vitamin C and boost your immune system. Some examples of vitamin C fruits and vegetables that are great to eat when you’re sick include:

  • Oranges
  • Grapefruit
  • Red or green bell peppers
  • Kiwi
  • Broccoli
  • Strawberries
  • Potatoes

Garlic

Garlic has the potential to boost your immune system by helping your body absorb zinc, a mineral that helps regulate and improve your immune function. It’s also a great way to add flavor to soups and broths.

If you struggle to eat the spice, garlic supplements can be an alternative to consider.

Leafy Greens

Leafy greens are a great way to get added vitamins—such as A, D, and K—which boost your immune system and can help with inflammation. Some examples of leafy greens to consider include:

  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Cabbage

If you don’t enjoy eating raw leafy greens or in a salad, you can add them to smoothies or cook them in soups to reap the benefits.

Ginger

Ginger is known to help with nausea and can potentially soothe upset stomachs, which may be among the cold symptoms you experience. Not to mention, it’s easy to incorporate in various soup recipes to add flavor to avoid eating it raw.

Turmeric

Another spice with beneficial qualities, turmeric soothes inflammation, making it an ideal addition to soups, broths, and other meals.

Vitamin D Foods

Eating vitamin D‑rich foods helps your immune system function and can potentially prevent illness. Some examples of vitamin D foods to eat include:

  • Cod liver oil
  • Certain fish, such as trout and salmon
  • Egg yolks
  • Mushrooms
  • Dairy milk
  • Fortified oat, almond, and soy milk alternatives

Some options, such as egg yolks and milk, can easily be blended into smoothies to make them easier to consume. Mushrooms can be cooked and added to soups for easier consumption, too.

Oatmeal

Oatmeal can be an excellent source of nutrition that is easy on the stomach and easy to eat when you’re feeling ill. Oatmeal includes a variety of nutrients that can help boost the immune system, including:

  • Copper
  • Selenium
  • Zinc
  • Iron
  • Fiber
  • Protein

Adding honey or fresh fruits can help enhance the taste, though regular oatmeal (as part of the bland diet) may be easier to eat with specific symptoms, such as vomiting, nausea, or diarrhea.

5 Foods & Drinks To Avoid With The Flu

While some food and beverages can help you heal during illness, other options may worsen symptoms. There are a few types of food and beverages that you should avoid as much as possible when you’re sick.

Processed Foods

Processed options, including fried foods and greasy foods, are tempting to reach for when you’re sick, mainly due to how quick and easy it can be to cook them. However, processed foods also contain minimal nutrients (due to the processing) and won’t provide essential nutrients that your body needs to fight illness.

Dairy

Consuming dairy when sick is often a mixed bag—some believe that options like dairy milk or yogurt may provide great nutrients that are beneficial in illness. However, dairy products can also thicken mucus, worsening congestion.

Overall, some dairy may be acceptable, but if your congestion worsens, try opting for nutritious, dairy-free options.

Alcoholic Beverages

Hydration is critical when dealing with flu symptoms, which makes alcoholic beverages less than ideal when you’re ill. Alcohol can cause immense dehydration and weaken your immune system, which in turn can worsen symptoms and lengthen recovery time.

Caffeinated Beverages

Like alcohol, high amounts of caffeine, such as in energy drinks or coffee, can work as a diuretic, making it difficult to stay hydrated. To avoid dehydration, take it easy on caffeinated beverages. However, some hot teas with caffeine can still be acceptable as they include herbs and minerals, such as ginger or peppermint, which help with nausea, congestion, or sore throat.

4 Drinks For When You Have the Flu

Water

Overall, water is the best way to stay hydrated. If you’re not a fan of drinking water, some ways to increase your water intake may include:

  • Adding fruits to water, such as lemon or other citrus fruits
  • Drinking room-temperature water may make it easier to sip
  • Drinking ice water may help with digestion and soothe a sore throat

Hot Tea

Hot teas are a go-to when sick, especially when they contain healing herbs. Hot tea can help soothe sore throats, and the steam may help with a congested or stuffy nose. Some great tea choices include:

  • Peppermint
  • Chamomile
  • Ginger
  • Elderberry
  • Oolong
  • Black tea
  • Hibiscus
  • Green tea

Some blends contain multiple herbs and spices that can work together to ease symptoms and help keep you hydrated.

Fruit or Vegetable Juice

If eating fruits and vegetables feels too difficult when you’re ill, drink 100% fruit or vegetable juice to get the vitamins and nutrients you need. Ensure that you’re not purchasing juices riddled with high sugar content and that are 100% fruit or vegetable juice.

Low-sugar Electrolyte Drinks

Electrolyte beverages are excellent in aiding hydration and replenishing your body with electrolytes you lose when you’re ill. Opt for lower-sugar options when possible. Gatorade and Pedialyte can be great choices, though check in with your doctor before consuming Pedialyte if you have conditions such as diabetes, since the drink may not contain enough carbohydrates.

Meal Replacement Drinks

While eating regular food is considered best, meal replacement drinks can serve as a way to still get vitamins and nutrients and feel full. Ensure your beverages aren’t loaded with sugar and contain the nutritious benefits you need. Good drinks to consider are:

  • Protein shakes, such as such as Ensure or Glucerna
  • Protein/​whey powder for smoothies, such as Orgain or Garden of Life

Foods To Eat When Nauseous

While nausea and vomiting aren’t as common side effects of the flu in adults, there is the possibility that you could experience them. There are foods and beverages that can be helpful if you’re dealing with nausea or are struggling to keep food down. Some examples include:

  • The BRAT diet: The BRAT diet stands for Banana, Rice, Apples, and Toast. These foods are all considered optimal choices for those struggling to keep food down.
  • Ginger: Ginger is known for helping soothe upset stomach and can help alleviate nausea. It may work best in a hot tea that you can sip, especially if you have a sore throat.
  • Bland, starchy foods: Similar to the BRAT diet, options such as white bread, crackers, or boiled potatoes can be easier to eat with nausea.

When To See A Doctor

In most cases, the flu can be treated at home without requiring a medical visit. However, if certain symptoms occur or persist, you should go to the doctor or the emergency room. Some reasons to see a doctor include:

  • Your fever continues to rise, notably if it goes above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit
  • You experience chest pain or shortness of breath*
  • You can’t keep anything down, including fluids
  • Your cough still persists 2–3 weeks after initial symptoms began
  • It hurts too much to swallow (severe pain, not mild discomfort)
  • Your headache or congestion doesn’t get better with medicine

Note: if you experience chest pain or shortness of breath, get to the emergency room as soon as possible.

FAQ

Can a healthy diet prevent me from getting sick?

While viruses can still occur in people with healthy diets, eating well-rounded meals with foods that contain plenty of vitamins and nutrients can potentially prevent certain illnesses before they occur or worsen.

Does not eating make the flu worse?

In short, you don't need to eat more or less when dealing with the flu. However, becoming dehydrated and not giving your body the nutrients it needs to fight the illness can worsen the virus, so it's best to eat and drink plenty of water.

Is the BRAT diet good for the flu?

The BRAT diet, which stands for Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast, can be excellent foods to help those with upset stomach, nausea, or diarrhea symptoms from the cold or flu.

Are there foods I can eat to help prevent getting the flu?

Yes, there are foods that contain certain vitamins and minerals that are thought to help potentially prevent the flu. Some of the foods or beverages you can eat to help prevent the flu include:

  • Vitamin D foods, such as mushrooms, fortified milk, and salmon
  • Iron-rich foods, such as nuts, white beans
  • Zinc-rich foods, such as oysters, red meat, and poultry
  • Selenium-rich foods, such as brown rice, oatmeal, cashew, yogurt

Become a patient

Experience the Oak Street Health difference, and see what it’s like to be treated by a care team who are experts at caring for older adults.

Related articles

View all articles

Get access to care, right in your neighborhood.