Should you really starve a fever?

What You Should Eat When You're Sick: The Invalid's Menu

If you're under the weather, you might want to try tea -- and a teddy bear.
If you're under the weather, you might want to try tea -- and a teddy bear.

When you've got a fever, you may not feel much like eating. That's because the cytokines, those chemical messengers released by the immune system that trick the hypothalamus into resetting the body's thermostat, also monkey around with your appetite, which the hypothalamus controls. Additionally, some viral infections that cause fevers also attack the stomach and make you want to vomit, which isn't too appetizing.

Even so, most experts agree that your body needs good nutrition when you're sick, so that the immune system can do its job. Having enough calories to run the infection-fighting mechanism is particularly important, which is why dieters should feel free to take a break from low-calorie regimens during the flu season, which lasts from October through January.

So what should you actually eat and drink when you have a fever? Begin with liquids, since your body can become dehydrated, especially if you've been vomiting or had diarrhea. Start small, with a couple of ounces of water or lemon-lime soda (let it go flat first, so that the bubbles don't bother your stomach). Repeat that every 15 to 30 minutes for a few hours, and then start taking larger quantities of water, tea, fruit juice and juice-based drinks, carbonated soft drinks and broth. After that, give solid food a try. You may want to start mild, with something like buttered white toast, but just about any food that doesn't cause nausea is OK.

Once you've graduated to more substantial fare, try foods such as lean meats, fish, poultry, eggs, legumes and nuts and seeds, which are rich in protein and nutrients such as vitamins B6 and B12, selenium and zinc, all of which will help boost your immune system. Other good choices are citrus fruits such as grapefruits, oranges, lemon and lime, which contain anti-inflammatory compounds called bioflavenoids, and watermelon, whose pulp contains a powerful antioxidant, glutathione, that helps curb cell damage.

One food you definitely should consider adding to your flu diet is chicken soup. In a study published in 2000, University of Nebraska Medical Center physician Dr. Stephen Rennard reported that his wife's grandmother's favorite recipe had anti-inflammatory properties that helped stop the movement of neutrophils, the white blood cells that stimulate the release of mucus. That, in turn, can reduce the coughing, sneezing and stuffed-up feeling that accompanies upper respiratory-tract viral infections. It's good for colds, too.

Want to know the truth behind more old wives' tales about your health? We've got links to more articles you'll like below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Bazar, Kimberly; Yun, A Joon., and Leeb, Patrick Y., "Starve a Fever and Feed a Cold." Medical Hypotheses. Nov. 23, 2004. Vol. 64, pages 1080-1084 (June 25, 2009)
  • Bishop, Eric. "Myth or Fact: Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever." March 3, 2008 (June 26, 2009).
  • Centers for Disease Control. "Questions and Answers: Cold Versus Flu." Jan. 8, 2004 (June 19, 2009)
  • Crosta, Peter. "What is a Fever?" Medical News Today. April 6, 2009. (June 19, 2009)
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. "Fever." 2009. (June 24, 2009)
  • HealthDay News, "Study with deer mice found reducing food intake 30 percent decreased infection-fighting cells." April 3, 2008. (June 19, 2009)
  • Humes, H. David. "Kelley's Essentials of Internal Medicine." Second Edition. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2001.
  • Larsen, Joanne. "Comfort Foods to Eat for Colds or Flu." Ask the Dietician. April 30, 2009. (June 26, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic, "Fever," June 6 2009. (June 24 2009)
  • McKeever, Kevin. "Eating Less May Hinder Immune System." HealthDay News. April 3, 2008. (June 24, 2009)
  • McKenzie, Naja E. "Fever: Upping the Body's Thermostat." Nursing. Oct. 1998. (June 25, 2009)
  • Martin, Lynn B.; Navara, Kristen J.; Navara, Zachary M.; Nelson, Randy J. "Immunological Memory is Compromised by Food Restriction in Deer Mice Peromyscus maniculatus." American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. Aug. 10 2006. (June 26, 2009)
  • Medline Plus. "Fever." June 2, 2009 (June 24, 2009).
  • Melone, Linda. "Do You Feed a Cold and Starve a Fever?" Feb. 20, 2009. (June 19, 2009)
  • The Merck Manuals. "Fever." Nov. 2005. (June 25, 2009)
  • Miedler, Wolfgang. "A Dictionary of American Proverbs." Oxford University Press. 1996.
  • National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Division of Viral Diseases, "Viral Gastroenteritis," Aug. 3, 2006. (June 25, 2009)
  • O'Connor, Anahad. "The Claim: Starve a Cold, Feed a Fever." New York Times. Feb. 13, 2007. (June 19, 2009)
  • Rehan, Kelly M. "An Overview of the Hypothalamus," June 16, 2009. (June 24, 2009)
  • Rennard, Barbara O., "Chicken Soup Inhibits Neutrophil Chemotaxis In Vitro." Chest. Oct. 2000. Vol. 118 No. 4, pages 1150-1157.
  • Shepard, Chas A. MD. "The Physiologic Care of Colds," Journal of the American Medical Association, April 20, 1901.
  • Stenger, Michael. "Feed a cold, feed a fever: Research shows calorie cut makes it harder to fight flu." MSU News. Nov. 24, 2008. (June 24, 2009)
  • Tunkel, Allen R. MD, PhD. "Defenses Against Infection." October 2008. (June 19, 2009)
  • University of Michigan Health System, "The common cold coughs up a $40 billion annual price tag," Feb. 24, 2003. (June 24, 2009)
  • University of Michigan Health System, "Fever," Aug. 11, 2008. (June 24, 2009)
  • van den Brink, Gijs R.; van den Boogaardt, Danielle; van Deventer, Sander. "Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever?" Clinical and Vaccine Immunology. Jan. 2002, Vol. 9 No. 1, p 182-183.
  • WebMD Medical Reference, "What to Eat When You Have the Flu," Jan. 20, 2008. (June 25, 2009)
  • Williams, Sue Rodwell and Schlenker, Eleanor D. "Essentials of Nutrition and Diet Therapy." Mosby, 1999.