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Eating and drinking when you're unwell

If you're unwell with an infection, it's important to drink plenty of fluids and eat well. This helps your body fight the infection and recover faster.

Read the following tips about staying hydrated and eating well.

Drink plenty of fluids

If you have a respiratory infection like a cold or the flu, there is a good chance you'll get a build-up of mucus in your lungs. If you do not drink enough fluids, the mucus can thicken and be harder to clear from your lungs. This can increase your risk of getting pneumonia.

Signs that you might not be drinking enough include:

Even if you do not feel thirsty, you should try to have at least eight cups of fluid a day. If you're drinking enough fluid, you'll be passing light yellow urine every three to four hours.

Water is the best fluid, but other suitable fluids include milk, tea, coffee, fruit and herbal teas. Some foods such as soup, custard, jelly and ice blocks also provide fluid. You may find drinks high in caffeine such as coffee less appealing when you're unwell.

If you cannot drink a large amount of fluid at one time, you may find it easier to have small sips of fluid every few minutes.

Keep a water bottle at your bedside so you can take sips during the night.

If you aren't eating much or you've lost weight, it's good to have milky drinks such as milkshakes or fruit smoothies. These provide energy and protein as well as fluid. It's fine to have drinks such as lemonade and ginger ale. You may find these more appealing than a hot drink.

Use an oral rehydration solution if you're vomiting or have diarrhoea

If you're vomiting or have diarrhoea, you may need an oral rehydration solution as well as plenty of water. This will help replace electrolytes and minerals that you may be losing from your body. You can buy oral rehydration solutions such as Gastrolyte and Enerlyte from your pharmacy. Or you can make the following homemade oral rehydration solution:

½ to ¾ tsp salt

1 cup juice (for example, orange, apple or cranberry)

3 ½ cups water

Mix in a clean jug. Store any unused solution in the fridge and use it within 24 hours.

Eat energy- and protein-rich foods

Your body needs energy- and protein-rich foods to help your body fight the infection and maintain a healthy weight.

Include protein-rich food such as cow's milk, cheese, yoghurt, red meat, chicken, fish, eggs or nuts in each meal and snack.

If you've lost weight, add energy-rich food such as oil, margarine, butter, avocado, cream or cheese to meals and snacks.

Eat small and often

If you have a poor appetite or you're struggling with regular meals, try to have a small amount of food every couple of hours when you're awake. You may find soft foods such as soup, egg dishes, mashed vegetables, yoghurt, custard or puréed fruit easier to manage. Especially if you're short of breath and you feel very tired.

If you have taste changes, try adding spices to plain foods and sugar or honey to foods that taste too salty.

If you do not feel like eating, make sure you still drink plenty of fluids. See How to overcome a poor appetite for high energy drinks you can make at home.

Weigh yourself regularly

If you have scales at home, weigh yourself every few days. Your body weight is a good indicator of whether you're drinking and eating enough.

If you're finding it hard to maintain your weight, talk to your general practice team. They may refer you to a dietitian.

Written by Nutrition and Dietetics, Christchurch Hospital, Canterbury DHB. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed August 2023.

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Page reference: 744904

Review key: HIEDU-744904