As the coronavirus billows across the world, a lot of us are especially afraid of falling ill. And while staying hydrated by chugging a bunch of electrolytes will do virtually nothing to defend you from catching an illness, it can make you feel better if you already have some kind of bug.
“We always caution anyone healthy and people who are sick to keep up fluid intake and keep mucus membranes moist,” William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, explained to the Associated Press. “It makes you feel better, but there is no clear indication that it directly protects you against complications.”
Electrolytes, like sodium and potassium, are thought to be especially helpful because of their ability to enhance fluid balance within the body — and while sick, we tend to sweat out more electrolytes (vomiting and diarrhea can also contribute to electrolyte loss, for obvious reasons), which makes replacing them all the more important.
Many sports drinks, with their unique blends of sugar and minerals, claim to replace electrolytes, transforming them into a clarion call for the sick. The thing is, as I’ve reported before, science suggests that water generally does an equally fine job. In fact, after emergency facilities lacking intravenous fluids were forced to use sports drinks to help rehydrate flu patients back in 2018, some specialists went on to suggest that they simply contain too much sugar (which could make you feel even worse) and not enough sodium or potassium to really help combat the dehydration that a sick person often experiences.
“The basic deficiency in beverages such as Gatorade for illness-related dehydration is that there is too much sugar and not enough salt (sodium) or potassium,” said John D. Bowman, a pharmacy professor at Texas A&M Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy, in 2018. “Sports beverages may be fine for healthy persons following intensive exercise, but they are not recommended for those with fever, diarrhea or vomiting. Seasonal influenza (flu) is not usually associated with diarrhea, but this season many children are reported to have it as one of their symptoms. Children and older people are at greater risk of severe symptoms from dehydration, and using sports beverages, chicken soup or other home remedies may actually worsen the illness.” Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention simply say, “Drink plenty of water and other clear liquids to prevent fluid loss.”
So then, where does that leave us if we get sick? If sports drinks generally suck, which other electrolyte beverages could help us feel better, if any? I asked Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, many of these same questions, as well as whether ranking electrolyte drinks by how helpful they are when sick is even possible. And while she largely agrees with what was said so far, she also says that, if you can hardly get anything else down because you feel so damn awful, any electrolyte drinks could be helpful. “Any of these would be fine, so long as they have sodium and sugar in them, because that helps you retain fluids, should you need them,” Hunnes explains.
As for the ranking, well, Hunnes specifically notes Pedialyte and coconut water, both of which deliver plenty of electrolytes without the same sugary explosion as drinks like Gatorade and Powerade (which she says can be okay, too, if you really just need some liquid in you), as good choices. Among the bad choices, she specifies that Propel “has fake sugar,” which is generally thought to be terrible for you and should be avoided at all costs.
If you really, really feel bad, though, and are seriously dehydrated, like the flu patients mentioned above (in which case, go to the doctor), Hunnes says you need some kind of oral rehydration solution, which you can buy online or over-the-counter (Pedialyte, in fact, qualifies as one of these solutions). “But really, if you’re able to keep water down, any of these [electrolyte solutions] would be fine to help you hydrate,” Hunnes says.
“However,” Hunnes continues, “I wouldn’t personally want to spend $28 for a 12-pack of NOOMA to hydrate me. That’s a bit ridiculous. The price on any of these is fairly expensive, and they’re mostly unnecessary.”
All of that said, again, if Gatorade is the only thing you or, say, your sick kid can keep down (or voluntarily chug, in the cases of kids who’ll grudgingly just take small sips of water), Gatorade it is, then. “If you have a sick kid who’s unable to keep anything down, by all means, give them whatever electrolyte beverage they’ll take: Gatorade, Pedialyte, whatever,” Hunnes emphasizes. “They need it far more than adults do. In fact, if it’s really bad dehydration, then putting in a little extra salt and/or sugar may even be warranted.”
Otherwise, if you think you need more than just water and are well enough to choose, maybe try Pedialyte or coconut water. And if you still feel like crap, seriously, you really should just go to the doctor, dude.