Remember a time when you or someone you loved had a fever. Were you concerned, even afraid? Did you rush for treatment to help the fever abate? However, you will be surprised to know that fever is not an enemy of your body. Let’s understand why fever is good for your body.
Fever is commonly thought of as a negative, and often scary, health problem that should be prevented and eliminated whenever present. The reality is, however, that fever can be an expression of a healthy body and a well-functioning immune system. In fact, it is often better to allow a fever to run its natural course without medical intervention. Of course, there are absolutely times when fever must be taken seriously, and we’ll talk about this soon as well.
A Brief History And Insight Into Fever
Around 500 BC, Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, associated fever with the body’s immune system. For many years, however, this insight was overlooked and fever was understood as supernatural and sinister, something inflicted by an evil outside power. Over time we came to believe fever was an illness in and of itself. Yet, as evidence mounted, we appreciated fever as a symptom rather than a disease. However, I worry that while we have swapped our amulets for antipyretics, our elixirs for acetaminophen, we maintain a fever phobia. And this phobia negatively impacts on the benefits that fever can naturally afford us. With the development of thermometers and medications and a will to treat everything we consider out of the ordinary, or “not normal,” we have thrown aside a powerful healing aid, designed intelligently and innately by nature.
What Is A Fever?
While there is some argument about an exact definition, we understand fever as a temporary increase in body temperature, often due to an illness. The normal body temperature for an average person is considered to be 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (ºF) (37 degrees Celsius (°C)). While a person’s temperature does differ depending on their baseline, the time of the day, and where the temperature is assessed i.e. forehead, underarm, rectally, The American College of Critical Care Medicine (ACCM) and the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) defines fever at temperatures above 101 ºF (38.3 °C).
Signs of a Fever
Fever may include signs and symptoms such as sweating, shaking, headache, muscle ache, loss of appetite, irritability, dehydration and weakness.
What Can Cause A Fever?
Fever originates in the body’s thermostat, the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that controls body temperature. The hypothalamus occasionally receives feedback from the body to increase its temperature. This is how a fever begins. Fever is now understood as an indicator of an underlying challenge to the body, most often in the form of an infection. However, possible causes may also include:
- Viral infection
- Bacterial infection
- Heat exhaustion
- Systemic inflammation
- Malignant tumor
- Some medications including penicillins, cephalosporins, antituberculars, quinidine, procainamide, methyldopa and phenytoin.
A Fever Rethink: Are There Important Benefits That We Are Ignoring?
Fever can be beneficial, especially in the case of fighting infection. By increasing our core temperature, the body is able to maim harmful microbes and more. Our widespread fear of fever might have cast grey-colored glasses over a bigger, vivid world of insight.
Research On Why Fever Is Good
- Where critically ill patients with infection were admitted to intensive care units, those with a fever in the first 24 hours had a significant reduction in death rates while in hospital.
- In the hospitalized elderly suffering from community-acquired pneumonia, those without fever and leukocytosis were seven times more likely to die.
- In rabbits with pneumococcal meningitis, a fever drastically reduced the rate of bacterial growth.
- Fever, or potentially the response to the underlying infection when allowed to play out, may help prevent allergies. A study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that, “Children with fevers before age 1 were less likely to demonstrate allergic sensitivity at age 6 to 7 years.”
- Even in cancer, fever offers hope. With regard to prevention, a personal history of fever-inducing infection reduced the risk of future cancer development. There is also evidence to support whole-body hyperthermia to mimic the physiologic response to fever in both palliative and curative treatment protocols for metastatic cancer.
When Fever Is Good And It Doesn’t Need Treatment
A study by Schmitt revealed many parents incorrectly feared that moderate fever (a temperature of 104 ºF (40 degrees ºC or less) can cause serious neurological side effects, and so treat any fever aggressively. For example, 85% gave medications to reduce the fever before the child’s temperature reached 38.9 degrees C. While this fear is perfectly understandable, it is unfounded.
“A review of the literature showed that the only serious complications of fever were febrile status epilepticus and heat stroke, two rare entities” which, while these sound terrifying, come with accompanying signs and symptoms like those discussed above.
In most cases, fever is a perfectly normal immune response and does not require treatment. If the fever only lasts for a few days and the body temperature remains below 103 degrees ºF (39.4 degrees ºC) or even slightly higher, treatment of fever is most often unwarranted.
It is also possible that by artificially reducing fever and the accompanying ill feeling, a person may falsely believe they are well, assume therefore they are not infectious, and go out into the world and share their infectious load with others.
While fear and treatment of fever in children is almost unhealthily expected in modern societies, this aggressive approach often also extends to treating adults. Yet, the best way to cope with most fevers is by taking care of the person. This includes drinking plenty of fluids (preferably with electrolytes), resting and remaining as comfortable as possible.
With that said…
When Does Fever Need To Be Treated?
Sometimes, a fever does need to be addressed, possibly urgently. Typically, fever becomes of concern when experienced with:
- A severe headache
- Light sensitivity
- Stiff neck
- Vomiting excessively
- Difficulty in breathing
- Abdominal pain
In addition, fever warrants treatment in the cases of heat exhaustion, listlessness in children, long lasting (3 or more days) fever in children, and fever in infants. Feverish pregnant women ought to also consult a doctor. Treatment is also sometimes recommended for ICU patients whose bodies are less able to tolerate the metabolic cost.
Fever is the body’s way of responding to a stressor. By eliciting an increase in core temperature, the body increases its ability to fight potentially harmful viral, bacterial and fungal microbes and invaders. Although a fever phobia appears common — in both regular people as well as in many health professionals — fever is a natural process involved in an attempt to heal.
Fever is typically caused by an infection, but occasionally can arise for other reasons. A beneficial fever should subside on its own within a few days, but keep in mind the warning signs that indicate treatment may be necessary. And remember, there are significant benefits to fever that usually do not need quelling.