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13 Foods to Eat When Sick With a Cold

Written by 
Angela Myers
Reviewed by 
Anwar A. Jebran, MD

Article at a glance

  • When someone has a cold, the right food can impact how long the sickness lasts and the severity of symptoms.
  • Foods with anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidants may be useful in preventing future colds, treating symptoms, and reducing the duration.
  • Adding foods with Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, and Zinc may also reduce cold symptoms.

The common cold is an upper respiratory infection and the most common illness in the world. In fact, the average adult experiences 2–3 colds a year. Symptoms tend to be mild and may include sneezing, a stuffy nose, sore throat, coughing, and headaches. 

When treating a cold, many people turn to medications, hydration, and rest. While these help, diet can also be a powerful tool to reduce cold symptoms, shorten the duration of the cold, and boost immune function.

Cold Symptoms

While there are over 200 types of cold, rhinovirus is the most common type, earning it the nickname common cold”. Symptoms start a few days after someone comes into contact with the virus and can last up to 10–14 days.

The symptoms of a cold include:

  • Congestion (a stuffy nose)
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Headache
  • Sore throat

In rare cases, more severe symptoms may be present. These include a fever, dehydration, and trouble breathing.

Diet & Cold Symptoms

Nutrition science can point us toward certain foods to hydrate and fight infection– and it can help us stay away from foods that do the opposite, such as fast food or dehydrating substances like coffee.

When we fight infections like the common cold, it’s important to stay hydrated and maintain a diet with high-quality protein, fruits, and veggies. These foods offer relief from cold symptoms, strengthen the immune system, and may even shorten how long a cold lasts. Other foods, like soups, may also prevent dehydration.

Essential Nutrients for the Immune System

When grocery shopping with a cold, purchase foods with:

  • Anti-inflammatory properties: a cold is often the manifestation of inflammation in the upper respiratory tract. Foods with anti-inflammatory properties decrease inflammation, reducing symptoms and sometimes shortening cold length.
  • Antioxidants: foods that are high in antioxidants neutralize free radicals that harm the immune system. This makes them a great addition to prevent future illnesses, especially for those who experience recurring colds.
  • Vitamin A: thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties and a high level of antioxidants, Vitamin A may reduce symptom severity and help prevent future colds.
  • Vitamin D: the most famous vitamin for boosting the immune system, Vitamin D, contains anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties which can be useful when fighting a cold.
  • Vitamin C: As a source of antioxidants, Vitamin C possesses antimicrobial and antiviral properties that can boost the immune system. A strong immune system can fight off severe cold symptoms better.
  • Vitamin E: Similar to Vitamin C, Vitamin E is a great source of antioxidants that help reduce symptoms from a cold.
  • Zinc: like the aforementioned vitamins, Zinc’s antioxidant properties strengthen the immune system, preventing future colds. Zinc is also antiviral and may shorten a cold’s length. One study suggests zinc consumption can shorten a cold’s duration by two days.

Foods to Eat When Sick With A Cold

One of the best ways to get enough Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Zinc, and antioxidants is to maintain a healthy diet. When suffering from a cold, here are some of the best foods to reduce symptoms, shorten the duration of the illness, and prevent future colds.

This list is non-exhaustive, and other foods may offer similar benefits. Read until the end for even more ideas of food to eat when sick with a cold. Often, the best foods to eat are those we enjoy and will actually add to our diet.

Chicken Soup

Chicken soup has been a go-to cold remedy for centuries. But is there some wisdom to this home remedy or is it an old wives’ tale?

While chicken soup won’t cure a cold, it can provide temporary relief. Since soup is warm, it can open up a stuffy nose or sore throat. It also provides fluid, preventing dehydration and help in thinning mucus.

However, these benefits are not exclusive to one type of soup. Feel free to swap out this common remedy for tomato soup or another favorite and experience the same benefits.

Chamomile Tea

Another hot and calming cold remedy is chamomile tea. Like soup, it may provide temporary relief and thin mucus, but chamomile, or any type of tea, won’t cure a cold. Chamomile might prevent future colds as it boosts the immune system.

For those who don’t like chamomile but want a similar effect, other hot liquids, like green tea, may work too. However, fewer studies support the effects of green tea on nasal congestion and cold viruses.

Orange Juice

Citrus juices, such as orange juice, provide immune-boosting Vitamin C and other health benefits. These benefits stem from the folate in citrus fruits. Folate is a nutrient that helps maintain immunological barriers and prevent colds.

But orange juice isn’t only for prevention. It can provide benefits for those with a cold too. When someone has a cold, they experience sinus inflammation in the nose and sinus canals. Recent research suggests orange juice may reduce that inflammation. Eating an orange has a similar effect, but may not be as hydrating.

Ginger

Whether it’s from a ginger shot or adding raw ginger to a soup, this herb may help with relieving congestion and other cold symptoms. Like orange juice, fresh ginger is an anti-inflammatory food and might reduce puffiness caused by a cold.

It also contains antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals that can harm the immune system. While this property won’t provide immediate relief, the antioxidants in ginger boost immune function, preventing recurring colds.

Honey

If a cold has caused a cough, raw honey is a great natural remedy. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control recommends honey for adults and children over 12 months old with a cough because of the relief it provides.

Turmeric

Often considered a superfood, turmeric can boost immune response, relieve arthritis symptoms, and prevent muscle soreness. Many, though not all, of these benefits stem from turmeric’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These same properties may relieve the symptoms of a cold.

Chili Peppers

To turn up the spice on cold relief, consider eating chili peppers. Their active ingredient, Capsaicin, has been linked to a reduction in postnasal drip, congestion, and sneezing. Other spicy foods with capsaicin may deliver similar relief.

Cherries

As we’ve discussed, certain foods can be useful in fighting inflammation caused by colds and boosting the immune cells when sick. One such food is a cherry because it reduces inflammation in the sinuses and digestive tract.

As a fresh or frozen fruit, cherries also help people who experience trouble sleeping because of a cold. They reduce oxidative stress, and less oxidative stress may help people sleep better at night.

Carrots

Carrots might not be the first food that comes to mind when you have a cold. Yet, they are often one of the best foods to add to the grocery list, especially if a cold causes chest pain or other respiratory symptoms.

Carrots are a great source of Vitamin A, which helps maintain proper immune health. Carrots also contain Vitamin C, which has been linked to less severe cold symptoms, particularly in the respiratory tract.

Leafy Greens

Eating veggies is always important, but leafy greens might provide extra benefits for those with a cold. Broccoli and spinach in particular have been linked to enhanced immune system function and a reduction in cold symptoms, thanks to high levels of vitamin C, vitamin E, and zinc.

Kiwi

Older adults who are prone to the flu might benefit from adding kiwifruit to their diets. As a source of Vitamin C, kiwifruit boosts the immune system and can decrease cold duration. Some research suggests these immune-boosting benefits may have a bigger impact on older adults, children, and others who have a weaker immune system.

Fatty Fish

One of the most common sources of Vitamin D is fatty fish. Specifically, salmon, tuna, and herring possess large amounts of vitamin D, keeping the immune system strong. For those who don’t eat meat, eggs may have a similar effect.

Fish are also a source of Omega‑3, which is another anti-inflammatory. Omega‑3 has been linked to relieving symptoms of conditions that might flare up when someone has a cold, such as asthma, but little research has been done on its impact on a cold itself.

Mediterranean Diet

Frequent colds are no fun, but they can be prevented with certain dietary changes. Emerging research points to the Mediterranean Diet as particularly beneficial for those who can’t seem to shake a cold or who experience frequent cold complications.

In a 2016 study, researchers found this reduction led to fewer and less severe colds in trial participants who experienced recurring colds.

The Mediterranean diet consists of a mainly plant-based diet with some lean meats and seafood. It also involves lighter seasoning on food and using olive oil instead of butter to prepare foods.

Note: Learn more about this diet and proper nutrition at this link.

More Fruits and Veggies to Stock Up On

Other foods that are high in Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and zinc may also relieve sinus congestion and other cold symptoms. Fruits and veggies to stock up on:

  • Apricots
  • Artichokes
  • Bell peppers
  • Blackberries
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
  • Cranberries
  • Guava
  • Lemon
  • Lime

Foods to Avoid With a Cold

The worst foods for a cold are those that cause nasal inflammation, such as processed sugars and carbohydrates. Fast food also isn’t a good idea when under the weather. Beverages that dehydrate, such as alcohol and coffee, can worsen symptoms too, since a large part of cold recovery is to stay hydrated.

What To Eat When Struggling With Nausea

Nausea is not a common symptom of a cold, but if it is present, someone may not be able to keep food down. When this is the case, they may want to try the BRAT diet.

BRAT stands for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. These four foods are easier to keep down than others and provide some subsistence to those experiencing nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

If you are not experiencing nausea or an upset stomach, it’s best to avoid the BRAT diet since it doesn’t contain the necessary nutrients for better immune health.

Other Ways to Shorten a Cold

Dietary changes aren’t the only ways to combat a cold. Staying hydrated, getting lots of rest, and using saline sprays also relieve cold symptoms. Gargling warm salt water or using a humidifier may provide relief as well.

Over-the-counter cold and cough medications also help. When taking any medication, be careful about its side effects. For cold and cough medicine specifically, ensure you are not allergic to any ingredients. Some also contain pain relievers that, when paired with a pain medication like Tylenol or Advil, could become dangerous.

To avoid unwanted side effects, read the medication label before taking it. If questions arise, consult the pharmacist or a medical provider.

When To See A Doctor

Usually, a cold resolves on its own. In some cases, the intervention of a doctor may be needed. Considering seeing a doctor if:

Symptoms don’t improve on their own in 10–14 days

There’s a fever that lasts longer than four days

Symptoms like a fever or cough improve and then worsen

Dehydration occurs

A cold makes it hard to breathe

Chronic medical conditions, such as asthma or emphysema, are worsened by the cold

If the cold turns into bronchitis or pneumonia, it’s also best to contact a medical provider.

FAQ

What should I eat when sick with a cold?

Research suggests foods that are high in Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and Vitamin E can reduce the severity and length of cold symptoms. Many foods with anti-inflammatory properties can also reduce symptoms, while foods high in antioxidants strengthen the immune system.

How long does a cold last?

A cold usually lasts 10-14 days. It can be shorter, depending on the type of cold, treatments taken, and how the immune system responds. If longer, consider consulting a medical professional.

How long am I contagious with a cold?

While the cold displays symptoms for 10-14 days, it’s contagious for longer. The cold can spread a few days before someone shows symptoms. It stops being contagious once all symptoms are gone.

What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?

Both a cold and flu can cause sneezing, congestion, fever, headaches, sore throats, and fatigue. Despite these shared symptoms, there are a few key differences between the two. Flu symptoms are usually more severe and come on more abruptly. Those with the flu are also more likely to experience fever, headaches, muscle aches and chest discomfort. A cold is more likely to cause a runny nose and congestion.

How to get rid of a cold fast?

Getting rid of a cold faster often involves mixing multiple treatment options. For many, this includes cold medicine, at-home treatments, and dietary changes, such as eating more foods that are high in Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and zinc. For more personalized advice on chronic colds, consult with a nutrition consultant or registered dietitian.

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