Question of the Week

September 17, 2009


With flu season comes fevers, but the influenza virus is just one of many viruses that causes a fever, and fever can alos be caused by bacterial infections.

"A fever is a body temperature that is higher than normal. It is not an illness. It is part of your body's defense against infection. Most bacteria and viruses that cause infections do well at the body's normal temperature (98.6 F). A slight fever can make it harder for them to survive. Fever also activates your body's immune system."

A fever is a symptom, but it is also a tool that the body is using to fight off infection.

"Fever itself causes no harm and can actually be a good thing--it's often the body's way of fighting off infection. And, in most cases, a fever should be treated only if it's causing discomfort."
Kids Health

Many people try to treat a fever. However, since the fever itself is not an illness that is harming the body, and the body initiated the fever in order to help fight the infection, lowering the fever can make it more difficult for the body to defend itself.

"Most fevers are good for sick children and help the body fight infection. Use the following definitions to help put your child's level of fever into perspective:

  • 100°-102°F (37.8° - 39°C) Low grade fevers: beneficial, desirable range
  • 102°-104°F (39 - 40°C)   Mild fever: still beneficial
  • Over 104°F (40°C)         Moderate fever: causes discomfort, but harmless
  • Over 105°F (40.6°C)       High fever: higher risk of bacterial infections
  • Over 106°F (41.1°C)       Very high fever: important to bring it down
  • Over 108°F (42.3°C)       Dangerous fever: fever itself can harm brain.
    Marsh Field Clinic

While most fevers serve their purpose and then go away on their own, there are cases where fevers signal a more serious illness that should be seen by a doctor.

"Children often tolerate fevers well, although high temperatures may cause parents concern. It's best to be guided more by how your child acts than only by temperature measurement. There's probably no cause for alarm if your child has a fever but is responsive -- making eye contact with you and responding to your facial expressions and to your voice -- and is drinking fluids and playing. Call your child's doctor if your child:

  • Is listless or irritable, vomits repeatedly, has a severe headache or stomachache, or has any other symptoms causing significant discomfort.
  • Has a fever after being left in a hot car. Seek medical care immediately.
  • Has a fever that persists longer than one day (in children younger than age 2) or longer than three days (in children ages 2 and older)."
    Mayo Clinic
  • "Adults, call your doctor if:

    • Your temperature is more than 103°F (39.4°C)
    • You've had a fever for more than three days
    • In addition, seek immediate medical attention if any of these signs or symptoms accompanies a fever: Severe headache, Severe throat swelling, Unusual skin rash--especially if the rash rapidly worsens, Unusual sensitivity to bright light, Stiff neck and pain when you bend your head forward, Mental confusion, Persistent vomiting, Difficulty breathing or chest pain, Extreme listlessness or irritability, Abdominal pain or pain when urinating, Any other unexplained signs or symptoms."
      Mayo Clinic

    While the most common causes of fever involve infections, there are other possible reasons why the body may be producing a fever.

    "Infections cause most fevers. There can be many other causes, including: Medicines, Heat exhaustion, Cancers, Autoimmune diseases..."

    Only if a fever is causing discomfort does it need to be treated with medication. In most cases, basic care at home is sufficient treatment for someone with a fever:

    "Treatment for All Fevers: Extra Fluids and Less Clothing

    • Give cold fluids orally in unlimited amounts (reason: good hydration replaces sweat and improves heat loss via skin).
    • Dress in 1 layer of light weight clothing and sleep with 1 light blanket (avoid bundling). (Caution: overheated infants can't undress themselves.)
    • For fevers 100°-102° F (37.8° - 39°C), this is the only treatment needed (fever medicines are unnecessary)."
      Marsh Field Clinic

    If a fever is causing discomfort, further care may be warranted.
    "Treatment depends on the cause of your fever. Your health care provider may recommend using over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to lower a very high fever. Adults can also take aspirin, but children with fevers should not take aspirin. It is also important to drink enough liquids to prevent dehydration."

    As with any illness or symptom, it is important for each person to know their body and their medical history. If you have special circumstances that may affect your body's ability to deal with a fever (or that may affect your body's ability to deal with the cause of the fever), contact your doctor.

    "Ask your doctor for guidance if you have special circumstances, such as a child with immune system problems or with a pre-existing illness. Your doctor also may recommend different precautions if your child has just started taking a new prescription medicine. Sometimes, older children can have a lower-than-normal temperature. This can happen to older children with severe neurological impairments, children with a life-threatening bacterial infection in the blood (sepsis) and children with suppressed immune systems."
    Mayo Clinic

    Questions of the Week:
    What should you do to take care of yourself when you have a fever? What should you do to take care of other adults and children in your family when they show signs of a fever? How should you decide when and how to treat a fever? When is a fever a reason to contact a medical professional?

    Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
    Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

    I look forward to reading what you have to say.

    Health Community Coordinator
    Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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