What you should eat to fight a cold and feel better

Feeling bunged up? Bat those pesky germs away and find out how to get rid of a cold through your diet – some foods might surprise you.

Maybe you finally have a clear week to redecorate your home, or perhaps you’re off on holiday or have a lovely day out planned with the grandchildren and then… you sneeze.

There’s never a good time to have a cold and it’s irritating when it interferes with your plans. Unfortunately, we are not immune to getting ill at any time of the year and we’re at increased risk of infection as we age.

Most of us just want to know how to get rid of a cold fast, and the good news is that there are foods that help to fight colds. Dr Jenna Macciochi, an immunologist who specialises in understanding how nutrition interacts with the immune system, says: “Proper nutrition plays a vital role in supporting the immune system and can help prevent illnesses like the common cold.”

Older couple sat on a sofa holding a tissue to their noses.Credit: Shutterstock/PeopleImages.com – Yuri A

However, eating healthily isn’t just important when you have a cold, it’s about maintaining this as a lifestyle.

Macciochi says: “We often think of vitamin C as being the key immune- supporting nutrient, but the immune system requires us to be sufficient in all essential vitamins and minerals and to follow a balanced diet to function properly. If we fall short, our immune function may be compromised.

“Also, each of the macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats – within the main food groups plays a unique role in supporting immune function.” 

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Foods that fight a cold

No one specific food or nutrient will help you get rid of a cold, and variety is key, but there are certain nutrients and types of foods you should consider including in your diet.

Specific foods to build into your diet for increased immunity include:

  • oily fish 
  • wholegrain starchy carbs 
  • apples 
  • dark chocolate 
  • herbal teas 
  • sugar-free kombucha
  • kiwis
  • strawberries 
  • beans 
  • lentils 
  • echinacea tea 
  • oranges 
  • carrots 
  • nuts and seeds 

Foods that support gut health

Gut health affects all aspects of health, and immunity is no different. “Seventy per cent of your immune system is in your gut,” says Dr Linia Patel, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, “so having good gut health is a fundamental basis for good immunity.”

So how can we achieve that? “Your gut’s favourite food is fibre,” Patel says. It has a ‘prebiotic’ effect by feeding your ‘beneficial’ gut bacteria therefore enriching your gut microbiome – [the trillions of microorganisms that live in your digestive tract].”  

Current Government guidelines say we need to increase our dietary fibre intake to 30g (1oz) per day; most UK adults are eating only around 20g per day.

Fibre can be found in wholegrain varieties of starchy carbohydrates like oats, wholewheat bread, brown rice and quinoa, as well as in pulses such as lentils and beans, and fruits and vegetables including strawberries, kiwis, carrots, broccoli, and even dark chocolate. 

Foods that fuel your immune cells

Wholegrain carbohydrates not only help stimulate immunity through your gut, they power your immune cells too – double whammy! Both Macciochi and Patel point out that carbohydrates provide glucose, which is a source of energy that fuels immune responses. Again, opting for wholegrain varieties rather than refined grains is best, as these are packed with health-promoting nutrients. 

Colourful fruit and veg

Picture a plate filled with colours of the rainbow in the form of foods like carrots, tomatoes, spinach, blueberries, oranges and cabbage. This isn’t just eye-catching and enticing, it goes a long way in protecting your health. This is thanks to the phytonutrients (natural compounds found in plants) that give plants their rich colours.

There are thousands of different phytonutrients and the most common are carotenoids, ellagic acid, resveratrol, flavonoids, phytoestrogens and glucosinolates. Carotenoids are particularly beneficial, as they can be converted into vitamin A, which can enhance immune function and protect against multiple infectious diseases. 

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Colourful rainbow shape in the form of different fruits and vegetables.Credit: Shutterstock/Viktar Malyshchyts

Phytonutrients also help our gut bacteria to thrive and further promote a healthy immune system. Including a variety of different plant foods, such as fruits and vegetables, in your diet can contribute to diverse gut bacteria. And a more diverse gut microbiome is considered a healthier one. When it comes to varying your diet, Patel says: “If you’re always buying apples, mix it up by buying different types of apples. Even better, buy other foods like pears and oranges as well.” 

Foods rich in vitamin C, D and zinc

While research is limited, a review of studies has shown that vitamins C and D and zinc can positively influence how the common cold affects you. The review noted that regular supplementation (1-2g a day) of vitamin C may reduce the duration of a cold by 8% in adults, as well as the severity.

Meanwhile, the same review showed that zinc supplementation may shorten the duration of colds by around 33% and vitamin D supplementation can help to protect against the common cold. While this relates to supplementation, prioritising getting nutrients from food before using supplements is best. 

Patel adds: “Vitamin D particularly supports a group of immune cells called killer T-cells. It prevents the spread and movement of foreign microorganisms throughout the body and modulates upper respiratory (nose, throat, pharynx and larynx) health.

There might be occasions when supplementation is necessary. For example, around one in six adults in the UK have low levels of vitamin D, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey. As sunlight is our main source of vitamin D, Patel recommends supplementing during autumn and winter, and if you’re darker skinned you might need to take them for longer. She says it’s important to get a blood test done by your GP at least once per year to check if and when you need to supplement.  

Two cooked salmon fillets.Credit: Shutterstock/Maria_Usp

You can also get vitamin D from foods like salmon, sardines, tuna and some varieties of mushroom that have been left exposed to sunlight. Foods high in vitamin C include oranges, strawberries, parsnips, broccoli and peppers. Good food sources of zinc are nuts and seeds like pumpkin or sesame seeds and cashew or pine nuts.

Animal and plant-based protein

Protein supports muscle growth and also aids our immune system. Macciochi says: Proteins provide the building blocks for new immune cells and infectionfighting antibodies.Animal products including meat, fish, eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese are good sources of protein. Plant-based sources of protein include beans, lentils, pulses, tofu and nuts and seeds. 

Healthy fats

Not all fats are bad for you. In fact, Macciochi says: “Omega 3 fats, sometimes called ‘good’ fats, are incorporated into the membranes of immune cells, which supplies raw materials for immune molecules to resolve inflammation that can occur after an infection.” 

Omega 3 fatty acids are found in oily fish like salmon, sardines, trout and mackerel. According to the NHS, we should aim for at least two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily. However, most of us aren’t reaching this and are likely short in these essential fats.

What fluids are good for a cold?

What you’re drinking is also important for staying healthy. Patel says that staying hydrated helps your immune cells to function and that this is even more important during warmer weather.

Current UK guidelines recommend that adults aim for six to eight glasses (roughly 1.2 litres or 2.1 pints, which equates to six 200ml (7 fl oz) glasses or eight 150ml (5 fl oz) glasses) of fluids per day. This doesn’t just have to be water – why not have a herbal tea or try some sugar-free kombucha instead? 

What about honey and lemon water? Is it an effective remedy for getting rid of a cold or is that a myth? “There is no magic bullet liquid,” says Patel. “However, it’s a good way of gaining fluid and if it’s soothing your throat then it’s a good option.”

That said, echinacea tea could be a more beneficial option. Regular consumption of echinacea has been found to help with preventing and treating the common cold. 

What if you’re feeling too ill to eat? 

While the saying goes, “feed a cold, starve a fever”, sometimes you might just not be feeling up to it. In this case, Patel says: “Liquid calories like a smoothie or soup might be easier to tolerate.

“Also, maybe try eating frequent small meals throughout the day rather than less frequent larger meals. The most important thing is that you’re getting healthy nutrients.” 

Is it hay fever or a cold? How to tell

A common cold is an infectious illness whereas hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen. Also, hay fever doesn’t necessarily just occur during summer. There are different types of pollen that you can be allergic to at different times of the year. Tree pollen is released during spring, grass pollen is released during spring and summer and weed pollen during late autumn.

This, along with the similar symptoms of a cold and hay fever, can make it tricky to differentiate between them. That said, there are key things you can look out for that can help identify which you have. It’s best to speak to your GP or a health professional if you’re unsure. 

Similar symptoms in colds and hay fever

  • a blocked or runny nose 
  • sneezing and coughing 
  • headaches 
  • loss of taste or smell
  • pressure or pain in your ears or face
  • feeling tired 
  • sore throat 

Cold-specific symptoms

  • a raised temperature 
  • muscle aches 

Hay fever-specific symptoms

  • itchy, red or watery eyes  
  • an itchy throat, mouth, nose and ears 

Notice when your symptoms start; is it around the same time each year? If so, you might have a seasonal allergy. Also, colds tend to last one to two weeks whereas hay fever can last for longer 

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Gemma Harris

Written by Gemma Harris she/her

Updated:

Gemma Harris has been a journalist for over seven years and is a self-confessed health and wellbeing enthusiast, which led her to specialise in health journalism. During her career, she has worked with top editors in the industry and taken on multiple high-discipline fitness challenges for certain outlets. She is particularly passionate about nutrition; after being diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome in 2016, she discovered her fascination for gut health and founded thegutchoice.com – a dedicated space for providing a hopeful outcome for people with gut issues. Gemma’s core aim is to help others through her writing.

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