Does Spicy Food Help with Sickness?

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Key Takeaways:

  • Spicy foods contain capsaicin which can temporarily relieve cough, sore throat, and sinus congestion
  • Capsaicin triggers mucus production which can help clear nasal passages but may worsen coughing
  • Spicy foods act as painkillers, overwhelming pain receptors and reducing sore throat pain
  • Spiciness can increase nausea, stomach pain and congestion in some people when sick
  • While spicy food may relieve select symptoms, it does not cure illness


When we’re stuck at home with the misery of a cold or flu, we’ll try just about anything to get some relief from the symptoms. One home remedy that often comes up is loading up on spicy foods to clear up congestion and soothe a sore, scratchy throat. But does adding some heat and spice to your diet really help you get over sickness faster? Or is this just wishful thinking when you’ve got the chills and nothing tastes good?

This article will take an in-depth look at the science and research behind using spicy foods as a home remedy when you’re under the weather. We’ll evaluate the potential benefits, drawbacks, and overall effectiveness of spicy foods at relieving common cold and flu symptoms like cough, sore throat, congestion, and more. You’ll learn whether chili peppers, hot sauce, and other spicy additions can actually help shorten the duration or reduce the misery of your illness.

Understanding whether spicy foods live up to their reputation as natural cold and flu fighters will help you make informed decisions at the grocery store and in the kitchen when sickness strikes. You’ll be able to focus on ingredients that are more likely to provide real symptom relief. We’ll also look at some risks or downsides of overdoing it on spicy foods when you already feel lousy. This comprehensive guide aims to help you strategically harness the power of spicy ingredients to feel just a little bit better.

By the end of this article, you’ll have the facts on if, when, and how turning up the heat on your food can safely be used as part of a smart symptom management plan when you’ve got the cold or flu. Ready to learn if spicy food deserves its reputation as a home remedy hero? Let’s dive in.

Does Spicy Food Help Clear Congestion and Sinuses?

Nasal congestion and blocked sinuses are some of the most annoying and persistent symptoms when you’ve caught a cold. Your nose feels constantly stuffed up, making it difficult to breathe or get any relief. When searching for immediate congestion relief, many people reach for spicy foods thinking the heat will melt away all that built-up mucus. But is this an effective approach?

The active ingredient in chili peppers and spicy foods, called capsaicin, can stimulate mucus membrane secretion and liquid production. More fluid mucus in the nasal passages makes it easier for the sinuses to drain, potentially relieving congestion.

One small study found that capsaicin nasal spray modestly improved congestion in people with non-allergic rhinitis, a chronic stuffy nose condition. Capsaicin is thought to work by binding to pain receptors in the mucus membranes lining the nasal cavity, triggering the local release of neuropeptides that stimulate glandular secretions.

However, some doctors caution that while spicy foods may temporarily loosen mucus, they can also increase mucus production. So you may end up with thicker, stickier mucus lining the nasal passages instead of relieving congestion.

Spicy foods are also known to trigger a runny nose through a phenomenon called gustatory rhinitis. Capsaicin again binds to pain receptors in the mucus membrane, this time triggering the release of histamines, prostaglandins, and other inflammatory mediators that increase secretions.

So while this runny nose reaction may help clear out sinus passages in the short term, it could make nasal discharge worse if you already have significant inflammation from a respiratory virus.

Overall, incorporating reasonable amounts of spicy food may help briefly open up nasal passages and provide minor congestion relief. But it should not be relied on as an effective standalone remedy, especially in cases of severe viral-induced sinus blockage. Consider adding spice in moderation as part of a regimen that also includes proper hydration, nasal irrigation, mucolytics, and other evidence-based decongestants.

Can Spicy Foods Soothe a Sore Throat?

That painful, scratchy, raw feeling in the throat is one of the most universally dreaded symptoms of a cold or flu. It hurts to talk or swallow, and the discomfort is constant. So it’s no wonder people with sore throats are willing to try just about anything for even temporary relief, including dousing their food with hot sauce.

But does spicy food actually function as an effective analgesic or painkiller for sore throats? The evidence says that yes, it can provide modest and short-term pain relief.

Here’s why: capsaicin, the fiery compound in hot peppers, is known to activate and then desensitize neurons called TRPV1 receptors that detect painful stimuli like heat. In essence, capsaicin overwhelms and confuses the pain signaling system, so your brain doesn’t register the irritation or scratchiness in your throat as intensely.

One study found that gargling capsaicin solution significantly improved pain induced by oral mucositis, or mouth sores, in cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. Other clinical trials also showed capsaicin lozenges or spray reduced throat pain from various causes, though the benefit was mild and temporary.

So while spicy foods won’t cure the root cause of a sore throat, they can potentially “distract” your nerves from focusing on the discomfort for a little while. The key is to add spice moderately as part of a regimen that also includes rest, hydration, and over-the-counter pain remedies if needed.

Do Spicy Foods Clear Up Coughing?

That deep, chesty cough is one of the most exhausting and aggravating aspects of respiratory infections like colds and flu. You cough when talking, cough when lying down, cough after eating or drinking – the cycle seems endless. Can adding some heat and zing to your soup or tea tamp down on coughing fits?

Once again, capsaicin comes into play. The active chemical in peppers is believed to have a dual action when it comes to coughs:

First, like with a sore throat, capsaicin can temporarily desensitize nerve endings in the throat and chest that trigger coughing reflexes. This helps quiet coughs, though the effect is often mild.

Second, capsaicin is thought to break up thick mucus through vasodilation – increasing blood flow to the respiratory tract and stimulating secretion of more liquid mucus. This liquefies the phlegm and allows easier clearing of the airways.

However, this increase in mucus secretions could also make coughs more “productive” as you bring up more phlegm. So while cough frequency may decrease, cough intensity in the short term may sound worse as it’s more phlegmy.

Overall, incorporating moderate amounts of spicy foods may provide minor alleviation of coughing from colds or flu. However, the benefits are limited and temporary. Spicy foods should be used as a supplemental aide along with rest, hydration, mucolytics, cough drops, and cough suppressants in severe cases.

Can Spicy Foods Worsen Cold and Flu Symptoms?

While spicy foods may provide small benefits for some cold and flu symptoms, they can also have downsides in some people and situations. Here are a few potential risks of overdoing it on the chili peppers when you’re already under the weather:

Increased nausea: When you’re sick with a stomach bug or flu, nausea and vomiting can be some of the most miserable symptoms. Spicy foods can overstimulate already sensitive stomach nerves and make nausea worse.

Upset stomach: Chili peppers can increase stomach acid production and inflammation of the gastrointestinal lining for some people, potentially worsening upset stomachs.

Dehydration: Heavily spiced foods drive fluid loss as the body attempts to cool itself down through sweating and urination. Dehydration is already a concern when sick.

Congestion problems: While spicy foods may thin out mucus, they can also trigger inflammation and make congestion worse in some individuals who already have significant sinus blockage and irritation.

Medication interactions: Capsaicin can increase absorption of certain medications, creating a risk of higher concentrations and side effects. Check with your doctor about any spicy food-drug interactions.

The takeaway is that spicy foods do have risks when you’re under the weather, especially if overused. Employ them strategically by adding spice moderately, staying hydrated, and stopping if any symptoms worsen.

What Are the Best Spicy Foods To Eat When Sick?

Does Spicy Food Help with Sickness?

If you want to harness the beneficial effects of spicy foods during a cold or flu, strategically choosing the right ingredients and recipes can help maximize advantages while minimizing drawbacks. Here are some of the best options:

Broths: Chicken broth, vegetable broth, or miso-based soups infused with chili peppers, chili powder, cayenne, or hot sauce can help thin mucus and clear nasal congestion. Broths also provide hydration.

Spicy teas: Ginger tea, lemon tea, or green tea with a dash of cayenne pepper or hot sauce may soothe sore throats. Avoid dairy creams that could worsen phlegm.

Savory foods: Spicy curries, chilis, stir fries, or other warm, non-dairy foods may reduce throat pain and quiet coughs. Avoid heavy, greasy, or creamy dishes that could cause stomach upset.

Capsaicin supplements: Concentrated capsaicin pills used short term and as directed may temporarily relieve sinus congestion.

Moderation is still key, even when selecting “optimal” spicy foods while sick. Listen to your body’s feedback and adjust your use of spicy ingredients accordingly.

The Bottom Line: Does Spicy Food Help You Get Over a Cold or Flu Faster?

So what’s the final verdict – should you stock up on hot sauces and chili peppers next time you catch a cold or the flu? Will spicy foods actually help you kick the misery and recover faster?

The conclusion is that while spicy ingredients like chili peppers and capsaicin may provide modest, temporary relief for certain symptoms like sore throat, cough, and congestion, they do not directly treat or resolve the underlying illness. Spicy foods are not a magic cure-all or substitute for rest, hydration, and proper medical care.

At best, moderate amounts of spicy foods can be considered a supplemental comfort remedy, not a primary treatment. They may numb your throat or help clear your nose briefly, but have little impact on the course of your infection. And overdoing it on spiciness can even worsen nausea, stomach upset, inflammation, and dehydration.

So go ahead and spice up your soup a little if it makes you feel psychologically better. But have realistic expectations and be smart about listening to your body’s signals. Rely on a holistic regimen of self-care practices, over-the-counter medications as needed, rest, fluids, and time to truly defeat your sickness. With the right comprehensive approach, you’ll be back on your feet and feeling yourself in no time

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