'Tis the season for colds and flu, and with a hefty dose of COVID-19 and other viruses thrown into the mix, chances are you or people you know are feeling pretty rough right now. When you’re struck down with the sniffles, it’s usually not long before a well-meaning person advises you to “feed a cold, starve a fever.” But before you grab that thermometer or go ladling copious amounts of soup down your neck, we thought it worth asking: is there any science behind the saying?
Should you really “feed a cold”?
While it is perfectly fine to eat if you have a cold, it likely won’t have any magical curative powers – although a small study back in 2002 did suggest that eating could have a positive impact on the adaptive immune system. Until more definitive research is performed, however, experts tend to agree that it’s more important to keep an eye on your fluid intake than to worry about what you’re eating.
“Both fevers and colds can cause dehydration,” explains Dr Rachel Dawkins from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
The body uses more water than usual when you have a cold – all that mucus stuffing up your nose has to come from somewhere. It’s important that you replenish that by drinking more. Something like hot water with a touch of lemon and honey can be soothing if your throat is sore, and if you fancy a change with some fruit juice occasionally that’s fine too. Even tea or coffee in moderation is okay – whatever helps keep your pee a lovely pale yellow color.
If you have an appetite, eating some nutritious food won’t do you any harm when it comes to recovering from a cold. Many people throughout history have touted the benefits of chicken soup when you’re under the weather, and there’s a surprising amount of science to back that up. That said, a vegetarian or vegan alternative will also provide you with a lovely nutrient hit, and if you’re not a fan of soup at all there are plenty of other good options.
As registered nurse Brandi Jones wrote for VeryWell Health, foods that contain key vitamins and minerals, proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants can all help keep your energy levels up while you’re sick. The main thing is to try and keep your diet as balanced as possible, and let your immune system do its work.
And don’t overlook over-the-counter remedies. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help with a headache or general aches and pains, and your pharmacist might also be able to recommend a cough medicine or throat lozenges.
Should you really “starve a fever”?
Fevers are not a common symptom of a cold, but it’s more likely that you’ll have a high temperature if you’ve come down with the flu.
According to BBC Science Focus, the idea of starving a fever dates back to the Ancient Greeks, but there’s no good scientific evidence that it’s necessary.
Eating may be the last thing on your mind when you’re running a temperature, but if you do feel hungry there’s no medical reason to deprive yourself of food. If you’ve been off your food for a while or are experiencing nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting, it might be best to start with bland foods like plain toast.
However, the advice about hydration applies more than ever.
“One of the main reasons why patients get admitted to the hospital in the setting of a flu or a virus infection is for dehydration,” epidemiologist David B. Banach told Vice.
Replenishing lost fluids is even more important if you’ve been sweating due to a fever, or if you’re unlucky enough to have some of the unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms that can sometimes accompany the flu. In those cases, you may even want to consider an electrolyte powder or drink. And again, there are numerous over-the-counter medications that can help with all your symptoms.
To eat or not to eat? While we shouldn't always be so quick to dismiss grandma's pearls of wisdom, this one pretty much comes down to how you feel. If your fave snack makes you feel a little better, go for it. If you don’t fancy any food for now, just be sure to keep that water bottle handy.
But either way, there’s nothing you can eat or drink that will have a miraculous effect on your recovery. All you can really do is prevent things from getting worse while you ride it out. Which, we appreciate, is probably not the news that those of you currently fighting off the dreaded lurgy were hoping for.
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The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.