What is the meaning behind ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’?

What is the meaning behind ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’?

What is the meaning behind ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’?

It’s likely you’re already familiar with the proverb ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’. In fact, you might simply believe it’s nothing more than an old wives’ tale with little to no truth to it. But what exactly is the meaning of this age old saying, does it hold any degree of accuracy and should you treat the symptoms of colds and flu differently?

Where does the saying come from?

There are many popular phrases that are thought to have originated decades or even centuries ago – but the saying ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’ might be one that dates back further than most.

Believe it or not, this common saying is said to go back as far as 1574 when dictionary author John Withals stated ‘fasting is a great remedy of fever’. The belief was that eating food could help the body stay warm while you have a cold, while avoiding eating could keep the body cool during a fever.

So how much truth is in this saying, if any at all? To find out if you really should feed a cold and starve a fever, keep reading.

Should you feed a cold?

It turns out there is a small amount of truth in the saying that, when you have a cold, you should in fact continue to eat. When you have a cold, your body works to fight the illness, and in order to do this, it requires energy. As a result, it’s important that you fuel up with healthy, nutritious meals and snacks throughout the day. That being said, if your cold has changed your sense of taste and smell, you may not feel like eating much and you might notice a dip in your appetite, but it’s still important to ensure that you’re eating enough[1].

However, that’s not to say that you should necessarily overeat. Your body has the ability to turn recently digested food into energy, and it is able to convert stored energy into fat, so there’s no need to consume more food than you normally would. You should also make sure that you drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, and ensure that you’re getting enough rest and sleep[1].

If you have a cold, there are a range of symptoms you might experience, such as headaches, a blocked or runny nose, a sore throat, sneezing, coughing and muscle aches. The good news is, you can easily treat most of these symptoms at home. For example, an effective throat spray can help soothe a sore throat, while painkillers, such as paracetamol, can help relieve aches and pains[2].

Should you starve a fever?

While there is some truth in the ‘feed a cold’ element of this saying, did you know it’s advised that you don’t actually ‘starve a fever’?

When you’re unwell, you may develop a fever as your immune system tries to fight off an illness such as a cold or flu. In turn, your body temperature is likely to rise which can also increase your metabolism and burn more calories. So, the higher your temperature is, the more energy your body will demand, meaning you should continue to eat if you can[3]

To effectively treat a high temperature, it can help to get lots of rest, and you should drink plenty of liquids too. If you feel particularly uncomfortable, you can also take painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen to help ease your aches and pains[4]

It’s important to note that while a high temperature is one of the common symptoms of colds and flu, it can also be a sign of COVID-19[5]. If you feel unwell and you’re concerned, you should get tested.


[1] https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/infections-and-poisoning/common-cold/

[2] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/common-cold/

[3] https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/should-i-really-starve-a-fever-and-feed-a-cold

[4] https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/infections-and-poisoning/fever-in-adults/

[5] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/covid-19/covid-19-symptoms-and-what-to-do/