Monday, October 26, 2009

Dispelling Health Myths: Fevers Are NOT Bad

Flu season has hit with a vengeance. I hear many people talk about how many in their family have fallen ill with the flu virus, and all the strategies they have used to get themselves and their loved ones through it. Almost inevitably, I hear about people using acetaminophen to lower a fever. This strategy is ultimately misguided, and blunts the body’s ability to heal itself. It may even cause an illness to last longer than it needs to.

A fever is the body’s way of killing off a bacterial or viral infection. It is, in the vast majority of cases, not a dangerous symptom to be frightened about. For children, a temperature of up to 105° is not a cause for concern; it is instead a sign that the body is mounting a healthy response to a foreign invader. This is particularly true if a child has a high fever, but otherwise shows little sign of illness. (For adults, a temperature up to 103-104° is healthy.) Indeed, in some cases, it may be beneficial to stimulate a fever if it is not high enough.

So how does a fever come about? If a flu virus, for example, is detected in your body by an immune cell called a macrophage, it eats the flu virus up, then sends a signal to the hypothalamus. This signal tells the hypothalamus (basically the control center of the body) to raise the body’s “thermostat.” You respond by shivering and feeling chills. You may also cover yourself up and try to warm yourself. This results in a fever.

Fevers are actually effective immune stimulants. When the body temperature is elevated, white blood cells are produced at a higher rate, and they are released into circulation more quickly. Antibody production is increased up to 20 times the normal rate as well!

Moreover, fevers provide an inhospitable environment for invading organisms. Many harmful bacteria cannot thrive in temperatures above the body’s normal temperature of 98.6° F, and growth rates of many viruses are decreased significantly.

Finally, fevers often decrease appetite, which is why you seldom see people with fevers craving food. This is a normal and important aspect of fighting colds and flus. The body expends 60% of its energy digesting food. When you fast for awhile (e.g., when you have a fever), your body suddenly has that much more energy it can put toward fighting an infection.

Knowing all this, is there a reason why you would want to decrease a fever? The answer should be, in most cases, “no.”

There are certain issues with fevers that should be addressed. If a fever does get too high, the best way to decrease it is to rub the body down vigorously with a tepid washcloth; this will allow blood to move toward the surface of the skin, releasing heat naturally. Also, febrile seizures are a cause for concern, but are usually the result of dehydration and/or an electrolyte imbalance; making sure someone who has a fever is drinking plenty of fluids with electrolytes often will prevent febrile seizures.

Indications for hospitalization include a fever in children that stays above 105° for prolonged periods (or in adults if it stays above 104°), or febrile seizures, particularly if they last longer than 15 minutes.


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1 comment:

  1. Interesting. I try to hold off on giving my kids medicine to treat fevers for this very reason. Sound advice