9 Ways You’re Actually Making Your Cold or Flu Worse

Updated: Oct. 11, 2022

It definitely feels like every sniffling, sneezing, aching moment of the flu or cold lasts forever. Here's what you need to know to minimize your down time.

As if feeling lousy wasn’t enough

But now your symptoms just won’t go away. If you’re not making the right choices with your recovery, you could be a lot more miserable—and possibly for a longer period of time, warns Ian Tong, MD, chief medical officer at Doctor On Demand in San Francisco, California. Here’s how to start getting better faster.

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Not getting your flu shot

The flu shot is one of the most potent tools in your arsenal toward heading off illness—and even if the vaccine doesn’t entirely prevent a bout of flu, it helps minimize its effects. “Taking cold and flu season seriously means starting with prevention,” says Dr. Tong. “The flu shot helps your system get a head start.” This is the real difference between the cold and the flu.


Not drinking enough fluids

The reason that chicken soup seems to help cure the common cold isn’t because of the chicken—it’s that great, liquidy broth that helps flush out mucus and improve your symptoms. “Staying hydrated with water, decaffeinated tea, sports drinks, and sugar-free drinks is best to help fight dehydration associated with fever,” Dr. Tong says. The one liquid you can skip—alcohol, which can dehydrate you even more.

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Waiting to see the doctor

You may think it’s not worth seeing your doctor for every ache and pain you have, but if you actually have the flu, your doctor may be able to help you out. “When it comes to the flu, starting antiviral medicine within the first 48 hours can lead to a shorter and milder illness—so it’s important to act fast,” Dr. Tong says. “Early treatment can get you feeling better faster and avoid spreading the virus to others.” Try these natural cold remedies that actually work.

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Loading up on refined carbs

When you’re not feeling well, it’s all too easy to start reaching for those comfort foods (Hello, mac and cheese!). But you’re better off following that old adage of starving a fever by feeding it only healthy foods. The sugars from carbs—simple carbs like sweets and white bread and pasta—can be turned into sugars readily, which isn’t that helpful. You’re going to want to skip these foods that make your cold or flu worse.

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Getting too much exercise

Most doctors spend much of their time with patients advocating exercise, but this is one instance when your doctor would tell you to take it easy. “Living in denial of your illness could cause you to do more harm than good,” Dr. Tong says. “Don’t deny yourself sleep or rest. If you love to exercise, dial down the intensity to walking for a couple of days or until you are feeling better.” Resting your body is essential to getting back on your feet faster.


Catching a chill

Mom was right: You just might “catch your death of cold” from walking around without a coat. Research suggests a cold, damp environment can lead to a lingering illness. One study, published in 2017 in Archives of Virology, showed that immune cells that are chilled are less effective at fighting off viruses. “Bacteria and viruses thrive at cooler temperatures, so if you’re fighting a bug, it’s best to stay warm and dry,” Dr. Tong says. Now’s the time to cozy up in your favorite sweaters to stay warm. Try these surprising ways to prevent the cold or flu this season.


Taking herbal supplements

Dietary supplements—like herbs and minerals—have shown limited success in shortening the length of illness or minimizing the symptoms. And some herbal supplements may actually make things worse, according to Dr. Tong. “Echinacea can impact the performance of certain prescription medications.”


Not getting enough sleep

You may think you should just be a hero and keep soldiering on, but you’ll feel better faster if you take the time to let your body fight off the cold or flu. “Your immune system needs time to mount a defense,” says Dr. Tong. “Rest and proper sleep will strengthen your immune system. Sleep as much as possible to give your body a chance to recover.” Here’s what happens to your body when you don’t get enough sleep.


Using the wrong meds

“Early symptoms such as fever, headache, body aches, and sinus pain can be treated with pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen,” Dr. Tong says. However, skip spray antihistamine medications, which could become addictive—and could actually make your stuffy nose worse when you wean yourself off of them. Next, read about the surprising things you shouldn’t do if you have the flu.