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Starve a cold, feed a fever? Wrong! - (11/20/2018)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Sam came into the pharmacy and said to the pharmacist, “Remember that old saying? Starve a cold, feed a fever? I have this cold, Doc, but I am famished. Any advice?” That old adage persists, said the pharmacist. In fact, it goes back to a 1574 dictionary by British lexicographer  John Withals, which noted that “fasting is a great remedy of fever.” The belief was that eating food may help the body generate warmth during a “cold” and that avoiding food may help it cool down when overheated. The science of the 21st century disagrees with this 16th-century advice. Instead, let’s consider “feed a cold, feed a fever.”

First, why do we get fevers? A high body temperature, or fever, is one of the ways our immune system combats an infection, whether it is viral, bacterial, or due to some other biological assault on the body. Usually, the rise in body temperature helps the individual resolve an infection. However, sometimes it may rise too high, in which case the fever can lead to complications. An increase in body temperature speeds up metabolism and results in more calories burned; for each degree of temperature rise, the energy demand increases further. So taking in calories becomes important. Thus, feeding a fever can give the body more energy to beat the bugs. However, if the body temperature becomes too elevated, say above 101, a fever-reducing drug as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen.

A cold is a viral infection. A viral infection can open the door to a bacterial infection, such as pneumonia. As with a fever, the body needs energy to cut the viruses off at the pass. Starving oneself will not let the body convert calories into the fuel needed to stave off the germs that are making one feel lousy. Not hungry, you say? Do not force yourself to eat a mountain of food if you have no appetite. But there is one thing you can do that is even more important than eating.  

Hydrate yourself! Fever dehydrates the body, in part through increased sweating from an elevated temperature. Hence, replacing fluids is vital in battling the infection. Fresh cold water, orange juice, even herbal teas laced with lemon and honey can replenish the amount of fluid in the system. Avoid caffeine and alcohol as both enhance dehydration. A 2000 study revealed that chicken soup may have anti-inflammatory properties that help relieve cold symptoms. The hot liquid and animal protein will help you stay hydrated. The heat of the soup will loosen congestion, as well. Warning: Canned chicken soups are loaded with sodium. Foods with a high salt content can dehydrate you, making you feel worse. Instead, try low-salt brands or have someone you love make you some homemade broth. How do you know when you are hydrated? Typically, when you have to urinate every 20 to 30 minutes. 

What about the glut of remedies found on pharmacy shelves? “Shouldn’t they take care of the entire mess and get me out of bed?” Sam asked the pharmacist. Decongestants can interact with blood pressure drugs and antidepressants. Vitamin C has little effect in preventing the onset of a cold or reducing its symptoms. In high doses, C can cause diarrhea making you more dehydrated. Zinc supplements may cut the duration of a cold but only by 36 hours or so. Save your money! Go to bed!

The best advice is to rest, take fluids, and eat healthy food. Fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and seafood are great. Sugary foods? Not so great. Sam was glad to get this information because he was skipping meals under the assumption that it would cure his cold. “Next stop! Hot turkey sandwich!” he yelled as he left the pharmacy. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.com. Read more at www.rx-press.com 


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