December 8, 2023

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Is It a Bad Idea To Drink Coffee When You’re Sick? Immunologists Weigh In

Is It a Bad Idea To Drink Coffee When You’re Sick? Immunologists Weigh In

Bird’s eye view of coffee in a mug being held on a tabletop.

Chumbawamba sang about getting back down and back up again, but respiratory virus season may be knocking you out. Your saving grace? The morning cup of joe. You may not be able to taste it, but you can feel its energizing jolt. Might it also help your symptoms, or even heal faster? It’s a valid question, especially if you feel you keep getting virus after virus.

“If you have a chance to recover, you’ll feel better, but viruses spread easily in households,” says Dr. Sharon Nachman, MD, the chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. “If you keep getting hit, you may think, ‘I have to do something to get myself better.'”

Is the Rx drinking coffee if you don’t currently? It has antioxidant properties, after all. Or, perhaps you should lay off the caffeine? That may be the absolute last thing a sick coffee drinker wants to hear. A pair of immunologists put the question to bed (and suggest you get some sleep too). Here’s what experts want you to know about drinking coffee while sick. 

Related: This Is Who Actually Needs To Worry About RSV in the Coming Weeks

Is It Bad To Drink Coffee When Sick?

Immunologists say one to two cups of coffee is generally OK if you’re sick. “In moderation, everything is reasonable,” Dr. Nachman says.

A fellow immunologist agrees. “It is perfectly fine to drink coffee with mild or chronic illnesses,” says Dr. Linda Yancey, MD,  an infectious diseases specialist at Memorial Hermann Hospital.

In fact, Dr. Nachman says skipping your habitual morning cup of coffee may do more harm than good. While it won’t worsen your illness, potential caffeine withdrawal symptoms might give you an even bigger headache.

“If you are an everyday coffee drinker and get sick and go cold turkey, you’ll feel sick because your body isn’t used to it,” Dr. Nachman says. “Your body already feels sick [from the illness].”

Does Coffee Prevent Illness or Possibly Help You Get Better Faster?

No. It’s true that coffee has antioxidants, like polyphenols—also found in fruits and veggies—and research has linked polyphenols to a reduced risk for chronic diseases like stroke and diabetes. However, drinking a cup of coffee per day isn’t going to keep the doctor away (or help you heal more quickly).

“Wine has antioxidants; chocolate has antioxidants,” Dr. Nachman says. “No one is recommending you drink wine all day if you are sick. The antioxidants you get from coffee are negligible.”

Sad as it may be for people desperate to ditch the sniffles and sneezes, Dr. Yancey echoed these sentiments. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one important perk to drinking coffee when sick.

“For acute illnesses, there is really no benefit in drinking coffee aside from the psychological benefits,” Dr. Yancey says. “However, those benefits are real. I would never deprive someone who is already sick and miserable of the pleasures of a morning cup of joe or a nice milky tea.” 

Related: Will We Need a Yearly COVID Booster, Just Like the Flu Shot? Immunologists Discuss

When To Skip Coffee When Sick

Sometimes, it’s best to give your Keurig the day off. “Caffeine can be dehydrating and should be avoided in cases of severe diarrhea,” Dr. Yancey says.

There’s a (sort of gross) reason why coffee may exacerbate a stomach ache in people with a virus. “When you are sick and dehydrated, you swallow a lot of mucus,” Dr. Nachman says. “It’s sitting in the stomach and makes you nauseous to start with, and then coffee makes you more nauseous.” 

Related: 4 Doctors Share the #1 Thing They Always Buy at CVS at the Start of Cold, Flu and COVID Season

Other Tips for Feeling Better When Sick

1. Stay hydrated

Coffee is dehydrating, so whether you’re drinking it while sick or not, hydration is key.

“The most important thing is to stay hydrated,” Dr. Nachman says, suggesting plain water, which doesn’t have dehydrating properties like caffeine.

2. Take a steamy shower

Dr. Nachman suggests taking a steamy shower one to two times daily to loosen up mucus. It’ll make it easier to blow your nose and have fewer sniffles.

3. Relieve a sore throat with other kitchen staples

Sometimes, drinking coffee can make a sore throat more painful. Meanwhile, two other grocery store items might help: sweet honey tea or pickles. “The idea is the sugar in the tea or the salt in the pickle will draw fluid out of the tissues and help with the swelling,” Dr. Yancey says. “A saltwater gargle works the same way.”

One caveat with tea: Dr. Nachman, a tea drinker herself, reminds people that the beverage also has caffeine. Be sure to read the label, as caffeinated beverages are dehydrating no matter the form.

4. Avoid other vices

Coffee is usually safe, but Dr. Yancey suggests taking it easy—or nixing—alcohol consumption and smoking.

“It is generally a good idea to avoid alcohol and smoking while sick,” Dr. Yancey says. “Small amounts of alcohol are fine, but it should not be drunk to excess as it will slow down the healing process. Hangovers are no fun. Hangovers with a head cold are not to be contemplated.”

Amen to that. And this: “Smoking will slow down healing for any respiratory infection and should be avoided altogether,” Dr. Yancey says.

5. Rest up

Yes, caffeine can give you energy. However, getting some sleep is the best way to reduce illness-related fatigue.

“Unless you have something that must get out, take it easy and rest,” Dr. Nachman says. “I know it’s hard. I’m a working parent. I have three kids. We’ve all worked while sick.”

Dr. Yancey also knows the push to get back to life (and work) is real but says resting will help you do these things more quickly.

“The best way to get better faster is to listen to your body,” Dr. Yancey says. “If you hurry back to your regular activities too soon, you will stay sick longer. It is worth it to take a couple of days off work, lay on the couch, watch bad daytime TV and give your body a chance to rest and recuperate.”

That doesn’t sound too bad. 

Next up: 31 Different Types of Coffee Drinks, Explained