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The Truth About Feeding a Cold and Starving a Fever

26 May 2023

Let’s talk about the old saying ‘feed a cold, starve a fever.’ When we say it’s an old saying, we mean old. This phrase has been around since at least 1574 – a variation has been found in a dictionary from that year which says fasting is a great remedy of fever. Back then, it was thought that eating and digesting food caused the body to generate significant warmth, which would make a fever worse. While there is generally a little increase in your body’s temperature in the 20 minutes or so after a meal, it’s slight and only lasts a short time.

So, while ‘starving’ a fever may have been thought to be beneficial before we knew better, today we know that depriving the body of energy-producing fuel, AKA food, does nothing to promote healing.

Is a little bump in temperature a bad thing when your body is battling infection? Turns out, it’s possibly a good thing, but the evidence is not conclusive. While in ancient times, fevers were actively avoided, hence the ‘starve a fever’ tactic, a medical flip-flop occurred in the early part of the 20th century. Before the discovery of antibiotics, doctors used medically-induced fevers (pyrotherapy) as a treatment for all sorts of conditions, from rheumatic fever to syphilis, aiming to get a person’s body temperature up to between 103 and 107 degrees Fahrenheit.  

Was it effective? As an article on the subject in the New York Times succinctly put it: Perhaps the most telling commentary on the value of pyrotherapy is the rapidity with which it was abandoned following the introduction of penicillin.

The ‘feed a cold’ part makes more sense. Fighting sickness like a cold or flu requires energy, and we get energy from food. So eating nutritional food when you’ve got a cold can help give you an illness-fighting surge. Take care not to overeat, though, and aim for comforting yet nutrient rich foods. 

What about foods rumored to have healing properties?

Chicken soup. We’ve known anecdotally that it’s a feel-better elixir, but now we have proof. An American College of Chest Physicians study found that chicken soup has a mild anti-inflammatory effect, which can help ease upper respiratory infections like a cold.  

Honey. According to the New York Times, multiple randomized controlled trials have found that honey can reduce the severity and frequency of nighttime coughing in children, sometimes better than over the counter cough medicines. 

Broth. Whether you choose something meaty like bone broth or a vegetarian version, broth is rich in nutrients and antioxidants. It also helps hydrate you and is warm and cozy. 

Comfort foods. What sounds good to you is probably what you should eat when you’re sick. Try to spruce it up in the nutrient department when possible. If your go-to comfort food is mac ‘n’ cheese, consider topping it with leafy greens sautéed in garlic for a nutritional boost. 

The BRAT diet. Colds and flu can bring stomach/gastrointestinal upset with them. The BRAT diet is an acronym which stands for Bananas, white Rice, Apples and Toast, plain, low-fiber foods that are easy on the stomach.  

What makes even more sense than feeding a cold or fever is to flood them. You should flood an allergy attack, too. Drinking plenty of water is good for your body in sickness and in health. It’s extra important when you’re sick for a couple of reasons. First, it will ease congestion by thinning mucus in your nose, chest and throat. Second, if you’ve got a fever, you can easily become dehydrated. Water, ginger ale, clear soups, decaf tea and fruit juices are good options for staying hydrated when you’re sick.  

Other remedies you can count on to help you feel better for colds, fever or even flu:

Rest. You’ll heal faster if you let your body focus on fighting your illness, so fight the temptation to ‘push through’ and get in bed. You’ll shorten your illness and feel better faster. 

Gargle. A sore throat soother is likely sitting on your kitchen counter. For a gargle that will relieve a scratchy or sore throat temporarily, dissolve about half a teaspoon of salt in an 8-ounce glass of warm water. Gargle with this mixture as needed. Take note: children younger than 6 years old are not able to gargle, so this is not a good option for little ones. 

Humidify the air. Using a vaporizer or humidifier can help loosen congestion by adding moisture to the air. Be sure to clean the device regularly (follow manufacturer instructions) and change the water every day so it doesn’t grow mildew or mold. 

Warm liquids. Sip a cup of tea or broth, even hot cider. This time-tested remedy will feel nice on your throat and may help ease congestion by thinning mucus.     

Ease stuffiness. Saline nasal sprays and drops are available over the counter and are safe for all ages to use. Adults can use the spray type and apply it as you would any nasal spray. It will lubricate your sinuses and loosen mucus. For infants, saline drops are the way to go: place a few drops of saline in one nostril, suction the nostril with a bulb syringe and then repeat on the other side. 

Next level: Neti pot. This is an ancient tool and an effective one. Results will be similar to the saline nasal spray but the increased volume will bring even more relief. Neti pots look like little teapots with nostril-sized spouts. To use one, you’re going to want to stand with your head over the sink. Some people use their neti pots whilst showering. Fill your neti with sterile saline water. Lean over the sink and tilt your head sideways. Place the spout of the pot in the nostril on top. Breathe through your mouth and slowly pour the solution into your top nostril. If you’ve got the angle right, it will drain out of your bottom nostril. You’ve got it wrong if the solution is draining down your throat or out of your mouth. It will take a little practice, but the relief is well worth it. Wash your neti pot after each use.


Let your healthcare provider know if your symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms. If your symptoms don't get better in a few days, call your provider. For more health and wellness news, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog.

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