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Believe it or not, the phrase ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’ dates back to the 16th century. In 1574, this idea was even found in a popular dictionary, which stated that ‘fasting is a great remedy of fever.’ Historians think that the origins of the phrase might come from how people believed that disease and illness came down to an excess of heat or an excess of cold. They also believed that eating warmed the body. If this was the case, then it would make sense that when a person was suffering from a fever, they should not eat, and when they were suffering from a cold – which was believed to be literally cold inside the body – then it made sense to eat and generate warmth to combat the cold.

Should We Feed a Cold?

Woman in bed eating soup to feed a cold and starve a fever

Let’s look more closely at the first part of the phrase: feed a cold, starve a fever. Should we feed a cold? Well, the short answer is yes – we should eat when we have a cold. That doesn’t mean we need to consume lots of extra calories, as suggested by the old phrase, but we should make more effort to eat healthily. Eating well when the body is fighting off any illness is crucial to feeding the immune system with the nutrition it needs to support it and keep it working effectively. However, if your appetite is low while you are suffering from a cold, then don’t worry; the most important thing to do is to rest and drink lots of fluids.

Should We Starve a Fever?

Don't starve concept icon.

Starving to treat any illness is quite a bizarre idea to our modern minds. This is because we have a much better understanding of the importance of nutrition than our ancestors did. We know that good nutrition helps us to fight off illness. However, if a person has a very high fever, it is quite common that they lose their appetite. The important thing here is to be guided by the individual patient. If you have a fever and feel hungry, then eating a healthy balanced diet with plenty of fresh, nutritious food is a great way to support your immune system. If you have a fever and don’t feel like eating, then a short period when you don’t eat much is not likely to do you any harm. If you have an underlying condition that affects how you eat, such as diabetes, always talk to your doctor and get advice if your appetite changes. The thing about fevers is that they don’t last long. So any drop in appetite should be for a limited time. However, fever is very demanding on the body, and you will be burning calories more quickly than usual, so it is essential to try to eat when you can because your body needs fuel. Foods such as scrambled egg, soup, dry toast, apple sauce, or rice may be easier to stomach if you have been ill but be guided by appetite too.

The Importance of Fluids

Importance of water infographic - water, health, importance

The one important thing is that you don’t stop drinking. Staying hydrated is the best way of managing a cold. Hot drinks such as herbal teas and soups may be better than cold drinks as they can provide relief from some of the more unpleasant cold symptoms such as congestion, sore throat, runny nose, and sinus pressure. It is especially important when you have a fever that you drink more fluids. If you feel nauseous, then stick to clear fluids such as water and clear broth. Avoid alcohol and caffeine as these dehydrate the body. You might find it easier to eat some ice or sip drinks through a straw. This is especially important if you are suffering from vomiting or diarrhea, which can quickly dehydrate the body. If you do allow yourself to become dehydrated, it can turn a mild illness into a much more serious one.

Should you Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever?
Doctors glove/boxing glove fighting cold and flu virus

No! Those who first came up with the idea that you should feed a cold, starve a fever would also have had some beliefs and practices that we would never share today. They didn’t wash their hands or their food, and they had lots of cures made from such exotic ingredients as unicorns, stag’s tears, and the skulls of convicted criminals. So, essentially what we are saying is that you should take any health advice from hundreds of years ago with a generous pinch of salt (which, by the way, was added to manure to cure eye problems in the 17th century!). The body needs fuel to fight off illness and nutrition to support the immune system. It especially needs fluids to avoid becoming dehydrated.

Phrases such as ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’ persist as part of our social history. They come from a time when medical knowledge was less advanced, and people relied on such things to help them manage illness when there was little to no healthcare available. However, thankfully we now know better thanks to hundreds of years of medical research. Next time you hear someone advising to feed a cold, starve a fever, you can correct them by saying that what we need to do is feed the immune system, hydrate the body.