Being sick, whether with COVID, the flu, or the common cold, is downright uncomfortable. These illnesses cause inflammation in the body, and may lead to sore throat, brain fog, joint pain, headache, and congestion, among other symptoms. You may not have much of an appetite nor the energy to cook, but eating small, frequent meals and staying hydrated can help. Certain foods can help fight inflammation and relieve discomfort.
“Food really can be medicine, when we’re looking at how to improve immunity, or just release some of our symptoms,” Beth Czerwony, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition, tells Fortune.
Here are some of the best foods to eat when you’re feeling sick (that require little prep):
Soup is warm and comforting, but research shows it might actually make you feel better when you’re sick. Chicken soup can help reduce inflammation from colds and flus, and is also a good source of protein—helping your body stay strong and nourished. One study found it may reduce the severity of symptoms from upper respiratory infections, which affect the throat and sinuses.
Soup is especially helpful for sore throats because of the anti-inflammatory properties of the sodium content (I remember being told to gargle with salty water when I had a sore throat or mouth ulcer as a kid). Any broth can do the trick. When you don’t have an appetite for something heavier or more flavorful, simply sipping on a broth provides some of the calories you need. Soups can also help you stay hydrated, and are packed with antioxidants.
Adding in onions, kale, broccoli, and other leafy green vegetables to the soup will bolster the nutrient content. Sweet potato, pumpkin, and carrots are high in beta-carotene which also has anti-inflammatory properties.
The number one priority when you’re sick is to hydrate. Dehydration is a prime reason sick people, especially children, end up in the hospital, Dr. Vandana Madhavan, clinical director of pediatric infectious disease at Mass General Hospital tells Fortune. Herbal tea is a good alternative to highly refined sugary drinks, like juice and soda, or caffeinated drinks which can actually dehydrate the system. Hot tea is also a natural decongestant and can help soothe a sore throat. If you’re sweating profusely or feeling light headed, you will need more liquids than you usually drink. Keep a cup or bottle next to you as you rest and consistently drink from it.
Consider adding some lemon or orange to your tea, which can help fight inflammation.
Spices, such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and turmeric are all touted for their positive health effects.
Ginger in particular is beneficial when feeling nauseous because it can help the gut by speeding up digestion, says Dr. Tamika Henry, a family physician and founder of Unlimited Health Institute, which offers virtual consultations and appointments. Remember being told to drink ginger ale when you had the flu as a kid? Consider adding the spice to tea, soup, or rice, Henry says.
Tumeric can also help with gastrointestinal issues like stomach cramping and diarrhea, and Czerwony says “you can actually have a little bit more symptom relief” when consuming it.
Ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon also have anti-inflammatory properties that may help with a sore throat and other upper respiratory symptoms. Cayenne pepper can help open your sinuses and digestion (although she recommends limiting cayenne if you have a runny nose).
Honey can act as a cough suppressant, and research shows it can reduce the severity and frequency of a cough. Consider putting it in tea, warm water, or even taking a teaspoon before bed, Madhavan says, adding that it’s a good alternative for kids who are too young for cough medicine. However you should never give honey to babies under age one.
Manuka honey, nectar specifically derived from the manuka tree, has particularly strong anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects due to a compound called methylglyoxal (MGO), per the Cleveland Clinic.
Fruits like oranges, apples, and grapefruit are rich in vitamin C, which supports bones, muscles and blood vessels, and can help boost the immune system. They are also hydrating because of their high water content. (Oranges are over 80% water.) There’s also some evidence that vitamin C can help shorten the duration of a cold.
If you have an upset stomach, the high acidity content of citrus fruits may make the symptoms worse.
Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha contain probiotics or the good bacteria that can improve digestion and can fight off pathogens in charge of making you feel sick. They can help break down complex foods in your digestive system and specifically help diversify the gut microbiome, which is essential in maintaining a healthy immune system, says Brittany Michels, a registered dietician with The Vitamin Shoppe.
Consider popsicles or ice cream
Especially for children, hydration remains key. Give them a popsicle or ice cream, which can soothe a throat, Madhavan says. They’re especially helpful if kids are refusing to eat more whole foods.
It’s important to get the nutrients and soothing qualities of foods and beverages without having to put too much effort in. Have canned soup on hand and teas in the cabinet to make your home a one-stop shop when you’re feeling down. It’s also perfectly fine to lean on a comfort food if that’s what you crave. Choose what is easiest for you or your child in the short term, Madhavan says. The bottom line: stay hydrated, eat frequent meals you enjoy, and prioritize foods packed with nutrients.
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