Take a minute and think about the last time you or a family member experienced a fever. What was your first reaction or thought process? Do you have a thermometer at home? Did you stumble to the medicine cabinet and crack open a bottle of Tylenol, Ibuprofen, or NyQuil? Did you call your doctor, or did you race to the emergency room?
If it was your child who experienced the fever, your reaction may have been hastier and laced with a twinge of fear. Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a parent quicker than their child with a fever. The immediate reaction for many parents is to want to get rid of the fever. In 1980, Dr. Barton Schmitt, MD coined the phrase “fever phobia” after his research revealed widespread misunderstandings about fevers. Dr. Schmitt concluded that “the great concern of parents about fever is not justified.” Twenty years later, Dr. Schmitt’s research was repeated, revealing that “fever phobia” was still a problem.
I hope that by the time you finish reading this article, your fear of fever will be reduced. The first thing to know is that a fever is a normal, healthy response by the body’s immune system. It is not something gone wrong, rather a fever is an important way for the body to fight an infection. The fever itself is not the disease, rather a symptom of something else going on. This may be due to some type of infection. Instead of suppressing this natural response, there are ways to support a fever while still remaining as comfortable as possible.
What is a Fever? The definition of a fever is a temperature above 100.4°F. Most fevers will run between 100°F and 104°F, and are not harmful. From the perspective a naturopathic physician, a fever at or below 102°F is a wonderful thing and should not be suppressed. This rise in temperature is accompanied by an increase in immune system activity, enabling the body to rid itself of infection.
Will my temperature keep climbing? Some people may think that a fever will continue to go up unless it is suppressed. Not true! Except in rare situations such as heat stroke, the body will actually prevent its internal temperature from rising above 106°F. Your body is a wise creation. Illness and symptoms are the intelligent design of your body to return itself to a state of health.
Why did I lose my appetite? This is a completely normal response to illness. When your temperature rises, the urge to eat is essentially shut off. Eating and digesting food uses A LOT of metabolic energy. When you or your child are sick, it is a natural response to avoid activities that require extra energy. The most concerning thing for a child with a fever is dehydration. Ensure that the person with a fever get plenty of water, but don’t eat anything of nutritive value.
What about seizures and brain damage? While febrile seizures are a possible occurrence, these are extremely rare. Symptoms of a febrile seizure can include shaking and tightening of the muscles, or temporary loss of consciousness. Most febrile seizures last only a few minutes, and are not serious. According to the Mayo Clinic:
“Most febrile seizures produce no lasting effects. Simple febrile seizures don't cause brain damage, mental retardation or learning disabilities, and they don't mean your child has a more serious underlying disorder. Febrile seizures don't indicate epilepsy, a tendency to have recurrent seizures caused by abnormal electrical signals in the brain.”
Seek emergency medical attention if the seizure lasts longer than 10 minutes, or if they also experience vomiting, stiff neck, breathing problems, or extreme sleepiness.
How can I stay comfortable? Simple home treatments can help you or your child be more comfortable during a fever. Consider taking a bath with room temperature water. Limit the amount of clothing or blankets to help cool down. Under the direction of a physician, you may also try a technique known as a “wet sheet wrap.” This is a form of hydrotherapy that can help modify the body temperature and provide comfort during illness. Homeopathy and botanical medicine is another option that can be very helpful.
As a father of two, I know how stressful it can be to see a child in pain or uncomfortable. A better understanding of fever has helped me think twice before reaching for the Children’s Tylenol or Motrin. A foundational principle of naturopathic medicine is that the body has the innate ability to heal itself. Your body is an intelligent creation. A fever is not something gone wrong that needs to be fixed or stopped. It is the natural response of the immune system designed to help fight off an infection. If you can work with the fever instead of against it, I know your body can heal!
A version of this article was originally published by Dr. Bradford at San Tan Natural Medicine on September 14, 2015.