Maxims often carry wisdom from bygone eras, but the saying “feed a cold, starve a fever” stands out as a particularly enduring one. This adage can be traced back to a 1574 dictionary by John Withals, which stated that “fasting is a great remedy for fever.” The belief behind it is that eating food helps the body generate warmth during a cold, while avoiding food helps cool it down when overheated.
However, recent medical science has debunked this old saying. It turns out that the new mantra should be “feed a cold, feed a fever.”
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Eating When You Have a Cold
When your body is fighting an illness, it requires energy to combat it. Therefore, eating healthy food is beneficial. Additionally, eating can help generate heat in the body. Of course, wearing extra layers of clothing or snuggling under the covers can keep you warm as well. It’s important not to overeat, though. The body efficiently converts recently digested food into energy, and it can also tap into stored fat for energy.
The Importance of Eating When You Have a Fever
Fevers play a vital role in the immune system’s fight against infections. They raise body temperature, which increases metabolism and leads to burning more calories. For every degree of temperature rise, the energy demand further increases. So, taking in calories becomes crucial.
Even more important than eating is staying hydrated. Fever dehydrates the body, partly due to increased sweating caused by the elevated temperature. Replacing fluids is thus critical in helping the body combat the infection. The same applies to fighting off colds. “You have to make yourself drink fluids, even though all you want to do is collapse,” advises William Schaffner, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Dehydration also dries up mucus in the nose, throat, and lungs, which can clog sinuses and respiratory tubes. When mucus hardens, it becomes more challenging to expel through coughing. Staying hydrated keeps the mucus flowing, and although it may not be pleasant, it is one of our natural defenses.
The Challenge of Eating and Drinking When Sick
When you’re sick, you may not have much of an appetite and might not feel like drinking either. Loss of appetite is common and may be the body’s way of conserving energy to fight off pathogens. Following the advice mentioned earlier, if you don’t feel like eating, don’t force yourself. However, it’s essential to consume liquids. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, as both can exacerbate dehydration. Alcohol, in particular, is a depressant that can further drain your energy.
Other Home Remedies for Colds and Fevers
What about other commonly held beliefs for relieving colds and fevers, such as eating chicken soup? Chicken soup doesn’t possess any magical properties, but it does provide calories and fluids—both crucial elements. The warm vapor rising from the bowl can also help moisten and loosen dried mucus. Similarly, hot tea, with or without lemon or honey, can have a similar effect. Taking a hot shower can also help soften mucus. If you’re brave enough, gently blowing your nose one nostril at a time while in the shower can help clear out mucus.
As for supplements, their effectiveness is questionable at best. Studies on the benefits of taking vitamin C or zinc for colds are inconclusive. Well-conducted studies on echinacea show no significant advantage. If there is any positive effect from these compounds, it is minimal.
Over-the-counter remedies may or may not provide relief, and their efficacy varies. These remedies can alleviate symptoms but do not kill viruses or bacteria. Generally, cold and fever germs run their course, and the immune system eventually gains the upper hand. In the meantime, it’s crucial to stay hydrated and get as much rest as possible to give your body the strength it needs to fight the good fight.
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