A fever stimulates your immune system into producing more white blood cells, antibodies, and a protein called interferon, all of which work to protect your body against harmful microorganisms.
By raising your body's temperature a few degrees, a fever makes it harder for invading bacteria and viruses to survive and flourish. The higher your core body temperature is, the harder it is for harmful microorganisms to survive in your body.
A fever helps to shuttle iron to your liver so that it is not readily available to fuel the growth of invading bacteria.
Longstanding belief, and even parental instinct, may compel you to fight your child's fever to ease the persistent crying and discomfort. But most experts say not to worry so much about treating your child's fever. In fact, they say, for children older than six months old, having a fever may be a good thing.
"Fever is often a good sign of a robust immune system," said Dr. Kathi Kemper, professor of pediatrics at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. "A fever in and of itself is not dangerous."
Instead, many experts said comforting a child through a fever is an effective way to help a child get over a fever faster.
"We always recommend supportive care," said Dr. Estevan Garcia, vice chair for emergency medicine at Maimonedes Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY. "Make sure they're hydrated, make sure they're eating and drinking."
According to Garcia, many parents fear their child's high fever could trigger a febrile seizure. Febrile seizures are short convulsions brought on by fevers usually higher than 103 degrees. While it can seem scary for parents, the seizures are rare and considered harmless to the child if handled properly, according to the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a part of the National Institutes of Health. Only about 4 percent of children experience febrile seizures with high fevers.
Kemper agreed and added that even simply rocking your child in your arms or trying to keep him or her quietly distracted helps.
"Treat the child not the thermometer," said Kemper.
Still, many parents may feel concerned by misconceptions they may have heard.
A group of Israeli researchers obtained their results from a questionnaire sent to more than 2,000 parents, doctors and nurses regarding fevers in children older than 3 months. The researchers defined fever as 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit above normal body temperature, which is around 98.6 degrees.
Dr. Michael Sarrell and colleagues from the IPROS Network of the Israel Ambulatory Pediatric Association in Tel Aviv published their survey results in the Patient Education and Counseling Issue.
The investigators found that only 43% of parents knew that a fever below 100.4 degrees can be beneficial to a child, in contrast to 86% of the doctors and 64% of the nurses who responded to the survey. The majority of parents also said they would treat a fever below 100.4 even if the child has no other symptoms, something with which only 11% of doctors agreed.
Cold blooded animals like lizards will intentionally seek out warmer spots to lie on and rest to give themselves a fever when they are ill. All living creatures in the animal kingdom use fevers to strengthen their immune systems when they are ill.
The most common cause of a fever is a bacterial or viral infection, the vast majority of which your body's self-healing mechanisms can conquer with proper rest and nutritional support. Heat stroke and poisoning can also cause fevers, more often in children than in adults.
A fever can actually help sick children, explained Dr. Donna D'Alessandro from the department of pediatrics at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. "The body, basically, is trying to do the right thing," she said. "Bugs like to live at body temperature. So if you raise the temperature, you kill them off." And contrary to what parents may believe, she pointed out, the body can function very efficiently at temperatures as high as 100.5 degrees.
A fever cannot cause brain damage unless it reaches 107.6 degrees Farenheit (42 degrees Celsius) and stays there for an extended period of time. Since your brain has a built-in thermostat that does not allow your core temperature to rise above 106 degrees Farenheit (41.1 C) during an infectious process, it's virtually impossible to experience brain damage from a fever caused by a bacterial or viral infection. The majority of fevers don't reach 105 (40.5 C) degrees. The highest temperature that I have encountered thus far has been 104.5 degrees Farenheit (40 C) in a 6-year old boy who had suffered a heat stroke.
A small percentage of children can sometimes experience short-lived seizures when they have a fever, called a febrile seizure. These seizures are caused by a rapid increase in body temperature, not by a specific temperature. There's no need to worry if your child experiences a febrile seizure, as they end quickly and do not leave after-effects.
Although it is usually best to allow a fever to run its course and to rely on your own self-healing mechanisms to get you well, it is recommended by some health pracitioners such as Dr. Ben Kim, a chiropractor and acupuncturist, that you seek medical attention for fevers that are accompanied by:
- Difficulty breathing
- A stiff neck
- A persistent cough that lasts more than a week
- Unexplained heaviness or weakness in your legs or arms
- Unexplained irritability, confusion, listlessness, and any other behaviour that is out of character for you or your child
If none of the above symptoms are present, a fever is best treated by getting plenty of rest, drinking healthy liquids, eating lightly, and making sure that you are not increasing your core temperature by wearing too much clothing or using too many blankets. Please be aware that though the risk is very slight, there are potential negative effects to taking anti-fever medications, especially in little ones, so heed all warnings on labels and stay vigilant with symptoms.
For more information on managing fevers in children, read How to Raise a Healthy Child in Spite of Your Doctor, by Dr. Robert Mendelsohn.
Marco Torres is a research specialist, writer and consumer advocate for healthy lifestyles. He holds degrees in Public Health and Environmental Science and is a professional speaker on topics such as disease prevention, environmental toxins and health policy.