10 Foods That Could Make Your Cold or Flu Worse

Updated: Oct. 14, 2019

We know the foods that make a cold or flu better—like a steaming bowl of chicken soup, or a mug of ginger tea. But what about the foods that make a cold or flu worse? Avoid these when you’re feeling under the weather.

colorful variety of donuts with sprinkles
iStock/Peter de Kievith


“High sugar intake can suppress the immune system,” says Irvin Sulapas, MD, an assistant professor of sports medicine in the Department of Family & Community Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX. The increased levels of sugar have the potential to inhibit the work of infection-fighting white blood cells, Dr. Sulapas explains. Plus, sugar increases the number of inflammatory markers called cytokines, which can create inflammation in the body. Try to avoid comforting yourself with too many sweet treats (and yes, that includes sweetened juice) until you feel better. Here are 9 other ways you could be making your cold or flu worse.

bagel being buttered
iStock/john shepherd

Simple carbs

Thinking of grabbing saltines, buttered toast, or a heaping bowl of pasta? Think again. Refined carbohydrates are broken down quickly into sugar, triggering the same blood sugar rise as sugary drinks and snacks, with the same inflammatory effects, Dr. Sulapas warns. “That being said, not all carbohydrates are bad,” he explains. “Carbs that are low in glycemic index like wheat bread, whole grains, or anything high in fiber can reduce inflammation.” The exception: If you have an upset stomach, simple carbs can help; they’re easier to digest.

man checking prices on bottles of wine


Like sugar, alcohol causes inflammation and weakens white blood cells. Alcohol also has the double whammy effect of contributing to dehydration. Hydration is key when you’re sick, Dr. Sulapas says, because it helps the kidneys do their job of filtering waste from your body, so you can recover more quickly. “Also, hydration helps to decrease congestion by preventing your mucus from getting too dry so you are able to get it out of your body,” he says. You may also find that if you’re already mildly dehydrated from your illness, drinking alcohol can hit you harder than usual. Opt for water and tea until you’re feeling well. Here are 15 surprising ways to prevent colds and the flu.

bowl of spicy sauce with pepper and hot sauce

Spicy foods

If you have a cold or upper respiratory symptoms, there’s no need to say no to Sriracha sauce—spicy foods can actually help clear out your nasal passages thanks to the ingredient capsaicin, Dr. Sulapas says. But if you’re experiencing an upset stomach with your illness, back off of the hot stuff. It can make an already upset stomach worse. Here are the 14 best foods for a cold.

red and yellow grapefruit halves amongst a pile of whole grapefruits
iStock/doga yusuf dokdok

Citrus fruits

Reaching for a glass of OJ may be your first instinct when you feel sick—all that vitamin C, right? But citrus fruits, including oranges, grapefruit, and lemon, can irritate the stomach lining and aggravate an upset stomach. If you’re feeling nauseous, best to stay away until your stomach settles down. Dr. Sulapas suggests taking an over-the-counter vitamin C supplement rather than risking stomach upset. Or try one of these 21 natural cold and flu remedies that actually work.

cheeseburger and fries

Fatty foods

“When a person is fighting cold symptoms, the appetite goes down, and greasy foods tend to make you feel worse, as it can increase inflammation,” Dr. Sulapas says. “When you’re sick and your body is telling you that eating that greasy burger is probably not a good idea, then it probably isn’t a good idea. Trust your gut…literally!”

assorted sugar-free candies

Sugar-free candy

It may not have sugar, but candies or gum with contain sorbitol can cause tummy trouble. Sorbitol is not digestible and can cause stomach discomfort or even diarrhea in some people, Dr. Supapas warns. Diarrhea means dehydration—a sickness no-no. Artificial sweeteners may also trigger headaches. If you’ve got a scratchy throat and need relief, opt for a honey-sweetened cough drop, minus the sorbitol.

a glass of iced coffee ,iced cappuccino
Job Narinnate/Shutterstock

Caffeinated drinks

Like alcohol, caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea, and soda can make you more dehydrated. Since caffeine is a diuretic, it lowers hydration levels, Dr. Sulapas explains, which slows your recovery time. It also doesn’t help that most of these drinks contain sugar causing inflammation making it harder to fight off infections. These are the 10 habits doctors use to avoid cold and flu season.

Sandwich Crackers with Cheese Cream
Alp Aksoy/Shutterstock

Hard or crunchy foods

Any jagged or crunchy foods with rough textures could irritate the throat and aggravate a cough or a sore throat. This includes anything with sharp edges such as crackers, nuts, and even raw vegetables. Instead, stick with foods that have an easy to swallow texture. Dr. Sulapas advises doing a saltwater gargle to soothe an irritated throat and speed healing rather than grab a salty snack.

Dill pickles gherkins cucumber in white bowl
Tommy Atthi/Shutterstock

Sour, pickled, or brined foods

“Foods that make sore throats worse are usually the same foods that can make your stomach upset,” Dr. Sulapas says. Pickled foods contain vinegar and or salt, so they can increase inflammation in a sore throat. Next, check out these 50 ways to avoid catching a cold this season.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest