Feed a cold, starve a fever – is this old wives tale true?
There’s plenty of advice that gets passed down through the generations, some of which is useful, but some of which is simply myths and sayings that we keep repeating. One of these old wives’ tales is “feed a cold, starve a fever”. It suggests you should feed a cold, meaning eat more when you have a cold, or starve a fever, meaning eat less when you’re suffering from a fever.
But is there any truth in this? It certainly sounds catchy, but what about the science behind it?
Should You Feed or Starve a Cold or Fever?
There’s one thing we know is true: when your body is trying to fight off an illness, it needs enough nutrients to do so. Making sure your body has the calories that it needs to form the correct immune response is important. So “feeding a cold” is certainly a good idea, especially if you’re enjoying a balanced diet (although some comfort food won’t hurt).
However, if calories are needed to fight off a cold, the same can be said about whether you should feed a fever, and any other illness. While you might not always feel like eating when you’re ill, your immune system needs the energy to help you recover quicker. Whether you have a cold or a fever (or both) your body will demand more calories so that it can produce immune cells. Do you feed a fever instead of starving it? If you have the appetite, it’s a good idea to keep eating and feed a cold or fever. As well as making sure that you’re eating well, you should stay hydrated while you’re ill.
So why starve a fever? Unfortunately, you might not feel particularly hungry when you’re ill. Even though your body needs the calories, your appetite is suppressed so that your energy can be directed to your immune system. If you don’t feel much like eating, focus on staying hydrated and try to choose drinks with higher calories, rather than choose to starve a flu or any other illness.
Some ideas include sports drinks, coconut water and smoothies. Hot drinks and soup are a good idea too because they help to thin out mucus, and soup can provide essential nutrients. There’s a reason chicken noodle soup is called “Jewish penicillin”!
A Quick Guide to Fevers
A fever is when your body temperature rises above normal – usually more than 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit). It’s a normal sign of fighting off an infection, and it’s most often nothing to worry about. However, there are times when you might need to be concerned about a fever, especially in babies and children.
It’s useful to have a digital thermometer at home so you can measure your or your child’s temperature when necessary. It will allow you to monitor any changes and check if a fever is getting better. It’s also useful to know your child’s normal body temperature.
You should seek an emergency GP appointment if your child:
- is under 3 months old with a temperature of 38 degrees or higher
- is between 3 and 6 months old with a temperature of 39 degrees or higher
- has other signs of illness – for example, a rash
- has had a high temperature for 5 days or more
- has no appetite or doesn’t seem their usual self
- has a temperature that isn’t lowered by ibuprofen or paracetamol
- shows signs of dehydration
A fever can also sometimes be a symptom of a more serious illness in both adults and children. Although this is rare, it’s still important to be aware of the symptoms that could indicate something more dangerous. For example, a stiff neck, a rash that doesn’t fade when you press a glass to it, and sensitivity to light are all signs of possible meningitis, and you should immediately call an ambulance. If your child has a fit (febrile convulsion) for the first time, this is also a time when you should call 999.
Is There Any Scientific Evidence for the Old Adage?
Some small studies have been carried out that could be used to show that the idea of feeding a cold and starving a fever is one with some evidence behind it. However, any studies so far have either been very small or have involved mice, rather than people.
It’s also important to remember that a fever can result from either bacteria or a virus. It’s possible to have a cold and a fever at the same time.
The most important thing to do when you’re ill is listen to your body. If you don’t have much of an appetite, you don’t have to force yourself to eat. However, keeping up your fluids is essential. It’s also useful to choose higher calorie drinks and foods where possible so that your body gets the energy it needs to recover.