True or False: Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever

mythbuster graphic Youve probably heard your grandmother warn, feed a cold, starve a fever, while you were neck-high under the covers stuffed up and miserable. Or was it starve a cold, feed a fever? Whichever it was, is there truth any truth to these kindly admonishments?

Evidence for the Health Claim

The idea of feeding a cold and starving a fever most likely originated during the Middle Ages when people believed that there were two kinds of illnesses. The illnesses caused by low temperatures, such as a cold , needed to be fueled, so eating was recommended. Illnesses caused by high temperatures, such as a fever, needed to be cooled down, so refraining from eating was thought to deprive the furnace of energy.

Most doctors today reject this idea. Recently, however, a Dutch research team conducted a small, preliminary study that provides some indirect support for the old myth. Researchers asked six healthy male participants to fast overnight before providing them with a meal on one occasion and just water on another occasion. They found that the subjects immune systems responded differently under the conditions of feeding versus starvation. While these are intriguing findings, they say little about how a person suffering from a cold or a fever can expect to actually feel when fed or starved. Although the study was small and inconclusive, the idea that food consumption may have a short-lived effect on the immune system is a new one, as previous studies have focused on more long-term effects.

Evidence Against the Health Claim Current medical opinion puts the feed a cold, starve a fever maxim in the same category as other medical advice from the Middle Agesfalse and maybe even dangerous! An infectionparticularly one associated with fevers is no time to deny your body the nutrients and fluids it needs. Like any bodily system, the immune system requires energy to function properly. To provide an extreme example, severe malnutrition is the major risk factor for life-threatening consequences of serious infections in less developed countries. And, drinking fluids helps counter the dehydration caused by sweating and mucus production. Conclusion Colds and flu are caused by viruses, for which there is no cure. The best you can hope to do is support your immune system as it struggles to prevail. Fever or no, starving yourself is no way to show your support. Whether youre thirsty or not, drink plenty of fluids. And, if youre hungryeat! References: Clarke T. 'Feed a cold, starve a fever' may make sense, say immunologists. Annie Appleseed Project website. Available at: http://www.annieappleseedproject.org/feedcolstarf.html . Accessed August 14, 2006.
Cold and flu guidelines: myths and facts. American Lung Association website. Available at: http://www.lungusa.org/site/pp.asp?c=dvLUK9O0E&b=35869 . Accessed August 14, 2006. Find the truth behind medical myths. University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) website. Available at: http://www.uams.edu/news/medical_myths/ . Accessed August 14, 2006. Old wives tales. The Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/general/aches/old_wives_tales.html . Accessed August 14, 2006. Should you really "feed a cold and starve a fever"? European Food Information Council (EUFIC) website. Available at: http://www.eufic.org/web/page.asp?cust=1&lng=en&page=FAQ&faqid=215 . Accessed August 14, 2006. van den Brink GR, van den Boogaardt DEM, van Deventer SJH, et al. Feed a cold, starve a fever? Clinical and Diagnostic Laboratory Immunology. 2002;9(1): 182-83. Image Credit: Nucleus Communications, Inc. Last reviewed August 2006 by Richard Glickman-Simon, MD Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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