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Starve a fever, feed a cold

Feed a cold, starve a fever. That's how the old saying goes. But is there any truth to it?

Starve a fever

Feed a cold, starve a fever.  That's how the old saying goes.  But is there any truth to it?  Is this sound medical advice or is this just an old wives tale?  And where did that saying even come from?

It turns out, the saying dates back to a 1574 dictionary authored by a man named John Withals.  In the dictionary it states that "fasting is a great remedy of fever."  It is this part of the old proverb, the starve a fever notion, that is most hotly debated.  It is almost as hotly debated as whether or not "feed a cold, starve a fever " is actually a proverb based on its merits as being either figurative or idiomatic, as demonstrated in this discussion on the Wiktionary page for feed a cold, starve a fever.

Most doctors agree with the "feed a cold" part. Your body needs extra energy to fight off illness, and eating healthy foods when sick provides the body with the extra fuel it needs as it burns off more calories fighting the illness.  This, in part, is why most doctors believe "starving a fever" is counterproductive.  The body still needs extra calories to battle the infection that is causing the fever, and depriving the body of food would have the exact opposite effect.  Staying hydrated is also very important when you have a fever.  The elevated body temperature and increased sweating associated with fever dehydrate your system more quickly, so be sure to drink lots of fluids.  If you ask a doctor, he will tell you the saying should be "feed a cold, feed a fever."

But has anyone ever tried to prove whether or not "feed a cold, starve a fever" actually works?  Well, I'm glad I asked because as it turns out, someone has tried to test the theory.  In 2002, a group of Dutch scientists set out to prove, once and for all, that "feed a cold, starve a fever" truly does work.  In the study they tested 6 subjects (yes, only 6) all healthy males aged 26-33 (Wait, they didn't even have a cold or fever? Or an old wife as a subject?).The study showed eating a liquid meal increased levels of gamma interferon which is essential to the type of immunity that fights off viral infections, like colds.  When subjects were given only water and no food they displayed an increase in Interleukin-4, a characteristic of the humoral immune response which is needed to tackle most bacterial infections, like those associated with fever.

While the study did yield some interesting results, it should not be taken as scientific fact.  The study was severely flawed: 6 subjects is too small a sample size to merit any useful results and the study seemed to lack a control group.  There were a lot of other possible factors that were not addressed directly by the study and there was a wide variety of results between the participants, especially during the starvation portion, where some participants actually showed a decrease in Interleukin-4, not an increase as the average results showed.  In fact, as it states in the study itself, the only thing it was able to prove was that "further studies are clearly needed for better comprehension of the relation between food consumption and the immune response."

So while we did not consult with any old wives as part of our research for this article, I think it is safe to assume "feed a cold, starve a fever" is not exactly sound medical advice.  Whether you have a cold or a fever, it is important to stay hydrated, get lots of rest, and eat healthy foods to help your body to fight off what's ailing you, and always consult your doctor for severe or worsening symptoms.

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