A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is it "feed a cold, starve a fever" or vice versa? And should you?

May 3, 1996

Dear Cecil:

My son says he has it on good authority that the phrase is "Feed a fever, starve a cold." I thought it was "Feed a cold, starve a fever." Can you tell me who's right, what it means, and who said it?

Cecil replies:

Your son thinks there's a better authority than dad? For shame. Although I realize the only way to make kids understand sometimes is to reason with them really loud.

Your version of the proverb is the traditional one, but you can find citations in the literature that have it the other way around. The idea, if not the exact wording, dates back to 1574, when a dictionary maker named Withals wrote, "Fasting is a great remedie of feuer."

You're thinking: this guy wrote a dictionarie? His medical advice wasn't so hot either. Doctors have been trying to stamp out the above piece of folklore for years. Current medical thinking is that you want to keep an even strain when you're sick with either a cold or a fever, and you certainly don't want to stress your system by stuffing or starving yourself.

Nobody's sure where the notion of feeding colds and so on arose. (It surely didn't originate with Withals.) One somewhat dubious explanation has it that the proverb really means "If you feed a cold now, you'll have to starve a fever later." A more plausible interpretation is that the feed-a-cold idea arose out of a folk understanding of the disease process, namely that there were two kinds of illnesses, those caused by low temperatures (colds and chills) and those caused by high temperatures (fever). If you had a chill, you wanted to stoke the interior fires, so you pigged. If you had a fever, you didn't want things to overheat, so you slacked off on the fuel.

Bottom line: tell your kid to chill. But I can relate. When I had sniffles as a kid the feed-a-cold thing was usually good for a few extra Twinkies. So you'll just have to forgive me if, in the delirium of a 99-degree temperature, I used to imagine it was feed a fever too.

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