Chicken soup, toast or popsicles might be on the menu when you're home with a cold. A big glass of milk? Not so much.
A lot of people steer clear of dairy when they're sick because they worry that milk products will make mucus or sinus issues worse. But the link between dairy and congestion isn't as clear-cut as you might think.
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Here's what we know.
Does Dairy Make Congestion Worse?
Before diving into the answer, let's quickly review what makes you feel congested when you're sick. When you have a respiratory infection like a cold, the body ramps up its mucus production in the nose and throat in an attempt to expel the offending germs. The increased mucus can make your nose runny or stuffy and make your throat feel slimy, clogged or irritated, per the Mayo Clinic. Not fun.
For many folks, consuming milk, cheese or ice cream when they're sick seems to make the phlegm-fest even worse. But dairy foods aren't actually giving you more mucus. It just seems that way, experts say.
"While some people may perceive a link between dairy consumption and congestion, the data from research studies indicates that there is no such link," says Michael Yong, MD, a board-certified otolaryngologist and neurorhinologist at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California.
Experts pored over these studies in a December 2018 review in the Archives of Diseases in Childhood. The conclusion? There's zero evidence that milk causes your body to make more mucus — so no, it's not actually worsening congestion.
That's even true for people with asthma. Consuming milk wasn't found to worsen breathing or respiratory symptoms in people with the condition, even those who believed that milk was bad for their asthma, the Archives of Diseases in Childhood review found.
That said, there's a good reason why drinking a glass of milk when you're sick sometimes seems to suddenly fill your throat with thick, sticky phlegm. Milk is rich and fatty, and it coats your mouth and throat, with tiny droplets of the stuff sticking around even after you've swallowed, the Mayo Clinic notes.
"There's a perceived thickness to the liquid being consumed, and there's residual milk in the throat itself. That's what's causing the feeling of more congestion," Dr. Yong says.
That's not to say that some people won't benefit from going dairy-free when they're sick. If you don't like the way milk or other dairy foods make you feel when you have a cold, that's a perfectly valid reason to steer clear, Dr. Yong says.
In fact, many adults with congestion reported feeling like their stuffiness eased up when they avoided dairy, found a January 2019 study in The Laryngoscope.
It's worth avoiding dairy if you have a milk allergy, too. That advice holds whether you're sick or not, of course.
But if you're allergic to milk, consuming dairy "can make you more susceptible to respiratory symptoms," Dr. Yong says. And if you're already stuffed up from a cold, that really would make your congestion worse.
(You might also experience other symptoms like a rash or nausea or vomiting, Dr. Yong adds. In rare cases, consuming a food you're allergic to can also trigger anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction that requires emergency medical attention.)
Can Dairy Products Help With Congestion?
Dairy foods won't cure your congestion, but they might help you feel a little better. If a cold glass of milk doesn't seem to worsen your phlegm, you might find that it soothes your sore throat, the Mayo Clinic notes.
And a fruit smoothie made with milk or yogurt can be a good way to get some liquid, calories and nutrition when you don't have a huge appetite, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "When you're sick, it's important to maintain a balanced and healthy diet, including staying hydrated," Dr. Yong says.
There's also the fact that dairy foods like milk, yogurt or cheese are packed with protein, vitamins and minerals that your body needs to function at its best. While nutrients like calcium and vitamin D won't directly improve your cold symptoms, they do support good health and immune function overall, Dr. Yong notes.
Again, that's not to say that milk should be a must when you're sick (or anytime, really). "Figuring out dietary preferences is individual-specific," Dr. Yong says. "If you perceive that dairy products don't worsen your congestion, you can have them. If you perceive that they do make it worse, it's also fine to skip them."
How to Relieve Congestion Naturally
Even if you feel like milk makes you stuffier when you're sick, just skipping it probably won't have you breathing free and clear. If you're looking for real congestion relief and would prefer to skip the cold meds, here are some things to try:
- Steam: Run a hot shower while you keep the bathroom door closed, or place a humidifier on your nightstand at night. The steam will help thin your mucus so it drains more easily, according to the National Library of Medicine.
- Warm compress: Placing a warm, damp washcloth over your nose and sinuses will have a similar effect.
- Nasal saline spray: Nasal saline sprays like Vicks Sinex Nasal Saline Spray ($17.04, Amazon) can temporarily thin mucus, helping you feel less congested.
- Nasal rinse: Physically rinsing your nasal passages with a neti pot filled with saline solution works similarly to a nasal saline spray. A full rinse can be more effective than a quick spray, notes UpToDate.com, but it's a little less convenient. Just be sure to take the necessary safety precautions.
When to See a Doctor About Congestion
Most cases of congestion will clear up on their own in about a week. But congestion that lasts longer or is accompanied by certain other symptoms could signal a sinus infection or another underlying problem.
According to the Mayo Clinic, you should see a doctor if:
- Archives of Diseases in Childhood: "Milk, mucus and myths"
- The Laryngoscope: "Effect of a dairy diet on nasopharyngeal mucus secretion"
- Mayo Clinic: "Cold symptoms: Does drinking milk increase phlegm?"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Feeding Children When They Are Sick"
- National Library of Medicine: "Stuffy or runny nose – adult"
- UpToDate.com: "Patient education: Nonallergic rhinitis (runny or stuffy nose) (Beyond the Basics)"
- Mayo Clinic: "Nasal Congestion"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.