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  • Writer's pictureRoger

Is Working Out with a Sore Throat a Bad Idea?

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

Many of my friends have questioned whether it's advisable to exercise with a sore throat.


In response, I've compiled a set of rules for working out during times of illness and wanted to share them with you!


It’s important to understand the “above-the-neck” and “below-the-neck” rules for working out while sick or your throat is sore.


It may be okay to exercise with certain illnesses, such as cold or flu, but only if the symptoms are above the neck and you feel up to it.


First and foremost - you should listen to your body while exercising when ill. If you feel exhausted soon after beginning a workout, taking time off is best to give your body a chance to heal.


THE “ABOVE-THE-NECK” RULE


Experts often use the “above the neck” rule when working out while sick. This means that if you are only experiencing above-the-neck symptoms like a sore throat, sneezing, nasal congestion, or earache, engaging in mild exercise for a shorter period is generally safe if you feel up to it.


However, if you are experiencing below-the-neck symptoms such as fever, muscle aches (myalgia), nausea, diarrhea, chest congestion, or coughing up phlegm, it may be best to skip your normal exercise routine until you feel better.


SAFE TO EXERCISE CONDITIONS AND SYMPTOMS


If you have a sore throat with the following “above the neck” conditions and symptoms, the general rule is that it is okay to exercise as long as you observe some general guidelines.


The Common Cold:


Generally, working out with a cold is okay as long as none of your symptoms are below the neck, like chest congestion. Indeed, exercise helps strengthen your immune system and may help you thrive during cold and flu season.


Studies indicate that “moderate intensity” exercise can reduce the number of colds you contract. In another study, women who walked 30 minutes daily for one year had half the number of colds compared to those who did not exercise. The reason? Regular walking can increase white blood cells, which are responsible for fighting off infections.


However, it would be best if you always listened to your body. If you’re feeling exhausted or winded because you can’t breathe easily through your nose due to congestion, you may want to reduce the intensity and duration of your workout routine.


An image of a woman with a common cold blowing her nose into a tissue.


Influenza


Can you continue working out while you have the flu? Yes…and no.


Experts recommend taking a break or performing light exercises, giving your body a chance to recover. Your immune system works best when it’s not overworked.


If you’re experiencing a fever, chest congestion, and/or vomiting, it’s best to skip your workout. Typically, a fever lasts 2 to 5 days when you have the flu, which means your body is fighting the infection.


Working out with a fever or periodically vomiting can dehydrate you, which could delay your recovery.


This leads us to a critical point.


BELOW THE NECK CONDITIONS AND SYMPTOMS – DO NOT WORK OUT


Below-the-neck symptoms include upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, lung congestion, etc. The following are three conditions characterized by some of these symptoms. Experts recommend that you do not work out with these symptoms and conditions or, at the very least, seek your medical provider’s advice beforehand.


Bacterial Pneumonia


If you are experiencing a wet cough or coughing that produces mucus, it is advisable to avoid physical activity. Studies have shown that wet coughing is commonly associated with bacterial infections in the lower respiratory tract, such as pneumonia (4). Bacterial pneumonia usually causes more intense symptoms than other forms of the illness (5).


Other symptoms of bacterial pneumonia include:

  • High body temperature (fever) with chills

  • Chest or back pain when coughing

  • A feeling of bodily weakness

  • Fatigue

  • Shortness of breath

  • Nausea/vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Loss of appetite

  • A cartoon image of human lungs.

Bronchitis


Bronchitis is characterized by inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the airways responsible for carrying air to the lungs. This condition may cause a persistent hacking cough accompanied by mucus production.


Other symptoms of bronchitis include:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Wheezing

  • Tightness in chest

  • Low-grade fever

  • Fatigue

Experts recommend waiting until symptoms subside before engaging in any physical exercise.


Strep Throat


Strep throat is a bacterial infection that spreads quickly and affects the throat. It’s estimated that around 30 million cases are diagnosed every year. Although it’s more common in children and those with weakened immune systems, it can happen to anyone at any age.


Symptoms of strep throat include:

  • Redness in throat with pus or white patches on tonsils

  • Mild sore throat

  • Severe sore throat

  • Pain while swallowing

  • Headache

  • High fever

  • Chills

  • Skin rash that feels like sandpaper

  • Swollen glands in the neck

  • Nausea/vomiting

  • Body aches

  • Swollen tonsils

  • Tiny red spots on the roof of your mouth

Should you exercise with strep throat?


Experts advise against exercising with strep throat due to a few of its symptoms.


Fever. Your body temperature rises as you exercise. So, if you’re running a fever, exercise can increase your body temperature even more, potentially leading to heat stroke.


Nausea/vomiting/diarrhea. These symptoms can lead to dehydration. It’s easier to get muscle cramps and spasms when dehydrated, so it’s best to wait until your symptoms disappear before exercising.


Chest tightness or congestion. Your lung capacity may be reduced, or you may have an airway infection, affecting your breathing.


Also, strep throat is a highly contagious illness, so you’ll want to avoid your normal workout routine in a gym if you are experiencing symptoms.


MY GENERAL RULES FOR WORKING OUT WHILE SICK


Take it easy if you do not want to forgo exercise while sick, at least reduce the intensity and duration of your exercise routine.


Drink plenty of liquids. Staying hydrated is always essential, but it becomes even more vital when the body is recovering from sickness. During this time, the body will likely use extra fluids to eliminate toxins and may also lose fluids through sweating and a runny nose. Ensuring you stay hydrated while working out and throughout the illness can help prevent the adverse effects of dehydration.


Replenish electrolytes. It’s crucial to replenish electrolyte salts when exercising, as even something as minor as a runny nose can cause their depletion. This becomes particularly crucial when adding a sweaty workout to the mix. To restore these electrolytes and ensure the body functions correctly, it’s recommended to drink liquids like coconut water, broth, miso soup, or sports drinks.


Eat a healthy diet. In addition to maintaining an exercise routine, consuming a nutritious diet incorporating a diverse selection of fruits and vegetables is a highly effective method of strengthening the immune system and avoiding illnesses. These wholesome nutrients are also necessary for the body to recover from infections.


Don’t overdo a workout. Avoid straining the body to its maximum capacity with activities like sprints or heavy weightlifting. Instead, a brisk walk or bike ride can help blood flow without overexerting the body.


Pay attention to how your body feels. Paying attention to your body and how it feels during a workout is crucial. If you start feeling exhausted after only a few minutes, it’s best to stop and let your body recover. Although it may be inconvenient, taking a break and resuming your usual exercise routine later will benefit your body in the long run.


An image of a woman sick with the flu reclining on a couch and putting a lozenge in her mouth.


Some of my most frequently asked questions on the subject:


Will my sore throat get worse if I workout?


If you have a minor sore throat, it could be a sign of seasonal allergies or the common cold. But it could also indicate a bacterial strep infection. If you exhibit other symptoms of this condition, you should see a medical professional for evaluation. Taking this seriously is essential, as excessive physical activity can lower your immunity and spread the infection to your respiratory tract. Therefore, taking things easy and engaging in moderate exercise is advisable.


Can you workout with congestion and sore throat?


If you feel well enough, you can exercise safely when your symptoms are confined to the upper part of your body, such as having a slight sore throat, runny nose, or congestion. However, it is advisable to take it slow and decrease the intensity or length of your workout, particularly if you feel you have less energy than usual.


Does exercise help you get over a cold?


Many believe exercising while sick can help them “sweat it out.” Though exercise is known to strengthen the immune system, there is no evidence to suggest that exercising while suffering from the common cold can reduce the duration of the illness or its severity.


All in all - listen to your body! It will tell you exactly what you need to hear.


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