Mom always said an empty stomach helps break a fever.
Catchy health phrases, such as “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” or “you are what you eat,” have been passed down from generation to generation. But there’s one adage moms have been saying that’s literally ancient: “starve a fever, feed a cold.”
Fasting was a common practice in ancient Greece, as it was believed to purify the body and spirit. Beloved Greeks like Hippocrates, Socrates, and Plato all advocated fasting for a variety of purposes, whether to rid the body of an illness or prepare it for athletic events.
Although ancient Greeks believed illnesses were spiritual punishments that must be “cleansed” away, current research theorizes that fevers are the body’s way of fighting off infectious bacteria, viruses, or parasites. These invaders thrive at the body’s normal temperature, but struggle when the body heats up, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
You may have heard of “starving a fever” from Mommy Dearest, but it was first written as advice by John Withals in 1574, who wrote, “Fasting is a great remedie of feuer” (a.k.a. remedy and fever).
The concept of fasting may have gained traction due to the fact that fasting appears to lower the body’s core temperature. The belief is that the lower temperature would bring the fever down.
A few researchers have put this ancient advice to the test. One small Dutch study from 2002 studied the T cells (the cells of the immune system that help fight infections) and how they are affected by food intake. According to their findings, eating resulted in one type of immune response (cell-mediated) whereas fasting resulted in a different type (humoral immune response). They believe this technical difference proved the adage true.
But hang on—the study was never successfully repeated, and the 2002 study analyzed just six male individuals. That’s not particularly persuasive.
How to Treat a Fever
A fever isn’t an illness in itself; it’s a symptom of the body’s immune response. You basically have to let the body do its thing to fight the infection and get back to normal. If you have the flu, that recovery should take about three to four days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But there are ways to make the fever less miserable as you give your body time to recover:
Resting helps provide the energy needed for the immune response.
Fluids helps prevent dehydration (especially if your fever is accompanied by diarrhea or vomiting).
OTC pain meds can bring down your fever slightly if it’s very high.
A cool sponge bath can bring relief from the heat.
As for food, most doctors agree to eat if you’re hungry and ignore the outdated advice to “starve a fever.” If possible, aim for a nutrient-rich diet with fruits, veggies, and whole grains to help support the immune system with crucial vitamins, minerals, and calories. If you’re hungry but have nausea, opt for bland foods.
Need more cold + flu tips?
10 flu myths. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Health Publishing, 2017. (Accessed on November 25, 2021 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/10-flu-myths.)
Bland diet. Washington, DC: MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Accessed on November 25, 2021 at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000068.htm.)
Fever. Washington, DC: MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Accessed on November 25, 2021 at https://medlineplus.gov/fever.html.)
Fever in children: overview. PubMedHealth, 2016. (Accessed on November 25, 2021 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072639/.)
Fevers. Jacksonville, FL: Nemours Foundation. (Accessed on November 25, 2021 at https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/fever.html.)
Flu. Washington, DC: MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Accessed on November 25, 2021 at https://medlineplus.gov/flu.html.)
Flu symptoms and complications. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Accessed on November 25, 2021 at https://www.cdc.gov/flu/consumer/symptoms.htm.)
van den Brink GR, van den Boogaardt DEM, van Deventer SJH, Peppelenbosch MP. Feed a cold, starve a fever? Clin Diagn Lab Immunol. 2002 Jan;9(1):182-3.Your child and the flu. Washington, DC: MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Accessed on November 25, 2021 at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007445.htm.)