By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

OK, it’s time for a quiz. Is a fever a good thing or a bad thing?  Well, I guess that’s sort of a trick question. You do not want to have a fever, so in that sense it’s bad. But, if you develop a fever, it can be a good thing that may be a useful part of the immune system to deal with an underlying illness. The point is that fever has a purpose and should not be snuffed out too early, in most cases, before it has a chance to do what it was designed to do. I guess you could call fever a “blessing in disguise.”

What is Fever?

The technical definition of a fever is an increase in body temperature to greater than 100 F. The “normal” body temperature for a human being is said to be 98.6 F, but this is somewhat of a misrepresentation because “normal” for me may not be “normal” for you. A healthy person may have a body temperature anywhere between 97 F and 100 F, and even this may fluctuate depending on such factors as the time of day or the weather.

The way that our bodies regulate temperature is really a rather complex operation that was brilliantly designed by our creator. The main organ that controls body temperature is the hypothalamus, located deep within the brain. This is the body’s “thermostat,” and its job it to calculate the amount of heat generated within the body through metabolism, in relation to the amount of heat lost to the outside environment, and adjust the temperature accordingly. The hypothalamus accomplishes this feat through several main methods:

  • Sending blood to one of two places: the inner core of the body to warm it and increase body temperature, or to the surface, near the skin, where it helps to cool the body.
  • Increasing or decreasing the rate of metabolism (the process of turning food into energy) and thereby giving off more or less heat, as needed.
  • Triggering sweating, which cools the body down.
  • Causing shivering, which warms the body up.

A fever is really nothing more than a resetting of the body’s thermostat to a higher temperature, usually (but not always) in response to a bacterial or viral infection (more about that in a moment). That is why you often experience some of the “adjustment methods” listed above when you have a fever. To raise the temperature, your body will draw blood towards the inner core, increase the metabolic rate, and induce shivering. When this happens, a person with a fever will often get the chills, in the early phase of the fever, due to cold extremities thanks to the blood that has been called to the inner parts of the body. The chills also warm the body by encouraging shivering, and further aids the hypothalamus at raising the body temperature. Once the fever runs its course, and the infection has been brought under control, its time for the hypothalamus to readjust again, and cool things off this time. This is accomplished by sending more blood to the outer regions, near the skin, where it will trigger perspiration, which cools the body via evaporation. An incredible process, designed by a master engineer, if you ask me.

What Is the Purpose of a Fever?

Now that we know a fever is a planned response of the body, the next logical question is why? What purpose does it serve? Well, as we said above, except for a few other possible reasons, most fevers are in response to bacterial or viral infections. The precise reason fever is stimulated by these infections is not known for certain, but evidence points to the fact that fever is a function of the immune system. Fever is thought to accomplish several different things that help the body recover from infections. Chemicals created by the immune system are actually involved with triggering the increase in body temperature. Some researchers think this is a function of a reaction between substances in the immune system and the invading infectious agents. So, the bugs actually contribute to their own demise. This process gives the hypothalamus the signal(s) to  “kick on the heat,” so to speak, and raise the body temperature. In addition, the same chemicals produced by the immune system send out a signal that alerts white blood cells that fight infections to respond to the invaders. Other events may also be happening simultaneously. Apparently the higher body temperatures tend to squelch the growth of certain bacteria and viruses, while at the same time acting as a catalyst to speed up the immune system’s efforts to repair the body and eliminate the infection. The changes in circulation and metabolism may also serve to increase the heart rate, which in turn helps immune system agents such as white blood cells to arrive at the “scene of the crime” faster. Do we have amazing bodies, or what??

What Are the Symptoms of Fever?

So far I have been expounding on the virtues of fever, and there are many. Most fevers are useful, and should be allowed to run their course.  However, fevers can get out of balance and go too high, which is not a healthy situation and should be intervened upon with medicine and other methods of bringing them down.

  • In general, if a newborn (under 2 months of age) has a temperature (rectal) of 100.4 F or higher, seek medical care. It is also reason to be concerned if a newborn has an unusually low temperature, lower than 95 F.
  • A baby over 2 months old should get medical care if he has 102 F or higher.
  • Older children often tolerate fevers quite well. As long as they are not getting dehydrated from vomiting or not drinking enough fluids, unless the fever is over 103 F, its not something to be concerned about unless it continues at that degree for more than three days.
  • A serious fever for an otherwise healthy adult is considered one over 104 F. Stay hydrated, and if it does not drop within three days, consult your health care provider.

Many fevers are often accompanied by symptoms such as:

  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Shivering
  • Muscle aches
  • Poor appetite
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache

These signs are all normal responses of the body as it is in the process of fighting off infection, and generally are not anything to be overly concerned about.

Should I Be Aware of Any Possible Complications of Fever?

Yes, there are several significant complications of fever that may occur.

  • Febrile seizures are a rare condition that can result in children usually under the age of 5 experiencing seizures in conjunction with a rapid rise or fall of body temperature. While they can be very frightening for both parent and child, they typically do not cause any permanent damage, and will resolve themselves after the condition causing the temperature changes has been resolved.
  • Meningitis is a serious infection of the brain or spinal chord that can exhibit fever along with a stiff and sore neck, severe sore throat, disorientation (or unexplained irritability in children too young to speak), or lethargic behavior. If you suspect meningitis, either in an infant, child, or adult, seek emergency medical care immediately. Meningitis can be fatal.

What Else Can Cause a Fever Besides Infections?

  • Sunburn
  • Allergic reactions
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Hormonal changes
  • Certain medications
  • Some cancers
  • Excessive exercise
  • Some traumas, such as breaking a bone.
  • Exposure to very hot weather, especially if not accustomed to it

What Treatments Are Available For Fever?

This is kind of a controversial question, so the answer may depend on whom you ask. In general, I would recommend letting a normal fever run its course without taking any aspirin or acetaminophen or ibuprofen to lower it. If you feel that you or your child needs something for body aches or pains, there are alternatives to medicine. Just remember if you do use medication, never give a child under twelve aspirin due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome.

If a fever is high and has run longer than you feel it should, a sponge bath with luke-warm water for five or ten minutes might help bring it down. Just be sure to avoid shivering, as this will tend to raise body temperature rather than lowering it.

One of the best things one can do to fight a fever (or avoid one altogether) is to maintain a healthy lifestyle that keeps the immune system strong. Especially important when fighting infection is to avoid sugar because it depresses the effectiveness of the immune system. This includes fruit juices. It is best to hydrate with pure water, homemade soups, or fresh-squeezed vegetable juices, if available. Eat a simple diet of whole foods, low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates. Supplementation with vitamin C, vitamin A, and zinc can also give the immune system a boost and help it work more efficiently and effectively.

A habit of washing your hands (and teaching your children to do the same) can go a long ways towards avoiding many infections, especially during cold and flu season.

What is the Best Way to Measure Body Temperature?

That depends on the age of the patient. For babies and children too young to use an oral thermometer, rectal measurements work best. Lubricate the tip of a digital rectal thermometer (the most accurate) and insert it about ½ inch into the rectum. Leave it in for a full three minutes to get the most accurate reading. Be sure to keep a tight hold on both thermometer and baby to avoid injury.

For older children and adults, either an oral digital thermometer or a digital one for use in the ear is fine, although the ear ones are not the most accurate.

Just remember to never use one of the old-style mercury thermometers. They are dangerous both to our health and the health of the environment.

The purposes and mechanisms behind a typical fever belie the fact that it is designed to appear when it does as a planned response of the body’s immune system to fight infection. It is only working against nature to try to eliminate a fever every time it surfaces. Let it accomplish its work. Unless it is beyond the bounds of a normal fever, it will only help you and not hurt you.

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