Cold or fever, good nutrition still important

January 11, 1999|By Lynn F. Little

Although folklore recommends we "feed a cold and starve a fever," it is actually best to maintain good nutrition as much as possible during both types of ailments. It is especially important to get plenty of fluids.

One reason not to starve a fever is that fever elevates basal metabolic rate, or the number of calories burned in the resting state. For every degree Fahrenheit rise in body temperature, metabolic rate rises 7 percent. This means that an average-sized adult with a temperature of 103 degrees Fahrenheit will burn an additional 400 to 500 calories each day.

Fever also causes body tissues such as blood, muscle and organ cells to break down more rapidly. This should not pose a problem for the previously well-nourished person who suffers a mild illness of short duration. However, loss of body protein can be significant for the person with a severe or long-term infection. Feeding a diet high in good quality protein, as well as in calories, should help reduce the protein wasting associated with infections.


Maintaining water balance is also critical during any illness that involves fever, sweating, vomiting or diarrhea. Since all of these conditions increase water losses, it is important to take in plenty of fluids. This is one good reason for encouraging thin soups and teas during illness. If sweating is profuse or vomiting and diarrhea persist, salt soups to avoid excess sodium loss.

Blood and tissue levels of many nutrients change during periods of active infection. Vitamin C levels, for example, fall as the nutrient is used by the adrenal glands to help fight infection. Because of this, it makes good sense to consume fruits and juices high in vitamin C on a daily basis, especially during illness.

What foods are best for the person with an infection? In the short run, the most important factors are to insure generous fluids and adequate calories. Since fatigue and achiness often are a problem, prepare meals and snacks from foods that require little work to eat. If sweating is profuse, salt food to avoid sodium depletion. If the condition becomes chronic, take care to see that protein intake is liberal - about 70 to 90 grams a day. Also, the person should consume enough carbohydrates to prevent ketosis (approximately 60 grams). Ketosis is a stressful condition caused by rapid breakdown of protein for energy.

Finally, additional vitamin C and B complex vitamins may be helpful in coping with the added stress caused by the disease.

Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County - University of Maryland.

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