Mind & Body

Is There Any Truth Behind the Old Adage "Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever"?

Being sick sucks. Treating an illness with Netflix binges always seems like a good idea, but that alone won't cut it. What else won't be your magic elixir? A cutesy old adage like "feed a cold, starve a fever." Just because an easy-to-remember little saying with a nice cadence has been repeated for generations doesn't mean there's truth to it. Check your sources, people.

Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy

According to Scientific American, the old axiom "feed a cold, starve a fever" can be traced back to a 1574 dictionary by John Withals. It noted, "fasting is a great remedy of fever." The idea here is that eating warms the body up to fight a cold, and avoiding food will cool you down to lower your fever.

It'd probably be more accurate to say "feed a cold, feed a fever," however. Although loss of appetite is a common side effect of being under the weather, eating gives your body calories that it then converts into energy. When you're battling illness, your body needs the energy to fight the good fight.

Just don't go overboard. "Starving is never a good idea," Dr. Sharon Horesh Bergquist, an internist at Emory University, told CNN. "However, we shouldn't be fixated on 'feeding a cold,' either. You should never force-feed a cold but rather eat when you're hungry." Easy enough.

The real key to nursing yourself out of a cold and fever is hydration. But your mom has probably told you that a million times, we hope. Fevers dehydrate you because even a small rise in body temperature requires more water for metabolic reactions and breathing. Replacing your fluids while your body battles a cold is crucial, too. "You have to make yourself drink fluids, even though all you want to do is collapse," William Schaffner, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Scientific American.

Hold That Thought

But that may not be the whole story, according to a 2016 study published in Cell. Ruslan Medzhitov, an immunologist at Yale University, and his colleagues dove into why a loss of appetite typically occurs during illness. Is this symptom serving a purpose we don't know about? For their research, the team infected mice with either a bacteria or virus, force-feeding some and giving pure glucose to others. The team found that force-feeding was protective in the mice with viral infections (more than 75 percent of these force-fed mice lived). Conversely, more than half of the mice with bacterial infections that were not force-fed survived.

This research suggests "feed a cold, starve a fever" is an oversimplification, seeing as fevers can be caused by bacteria and viruses (colds are caused by viruses). Maybe a more accurate saying is "feed a virus, starve a bacteria." Before you go starving yourself, just know that more research is needed.

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Dive deeper into the science of illness with "Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold" by Jennifer Ackerman. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto November 13, 2017

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