A thermometer.
A fever itself is not an illness but is a symptom of an underlying health issue.

How to Treat a Fever

Fever is one of the most common conditions we face in our daily lives. Here we will be covering the fever basics so you can know how to treat a fever.

What is a Fever?

Fever is an increase in our body temperature that is higher than the standard temperature. In Latin, fever means heat. Fever is also called as pyrexia, coming from the Greek word “pyr,” meaning fire or fever.

Body temperature is one of the important vital signs and the acceptable standard ranges from 36.8C to 38C or 97F to 100F when taken with an axillary (armpit) thermometer. A higher number than that would indicate a fever.

In children less than three years old, fever may start with a temperature of 37.5C (99.5F). However, when you do not have a handy thermometer nearby, a more traditional way to see if you have a fever is putting the palm of your hand over the forehead, chest, arms, or back. This may also signify the presence of fever if the skin is warm to touch. For years, this has been an acceptable method, though it may be inaccurate at times.

What Causes a Fever?

A fever is not an illness but a symptom that can be caused by many things. The most common reason is an infection that may be due to microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, parasites, or fungi. Since these microorganisms are foreign in our body, the immune system produces a cascade of ways to protect our body from the invaders, like the migration of white blood cells (or our immune cells) to the site of infection initially.

After attacking the offending agents directly, the white blood cells produce what is called cytokines. This is a group of naturally occurring proteins in our body that serves as a form of communication between cells, like how we would use our phones to call our family and friends for help. These cytokines are the signal to that small part of our brain called the hypothalamus (responsible for hormone production and temperature regulation) that there is a spreading infection within. The hypothalamus would then respond to the threat by increasing the body temperature, which helps curb the spread of infection as some microorganisms only reproduce in cooler temperatures.

Studies have suggested that fever is an evolutionary instinct that aims self-preservation. Aside from preventing the spread of infection, it also serves to let us know that there is a disease process going on in our body. So, fever is beneficial in a way.

More Serious Causes of a Fever

The other possible causes of fever may be cancer, autoimmune diseases (conditions wherein the body’s immune system attacks itself), drugs (anesthesia, antidepressants, antimicrobials), illegal substances like cocaine, methamphetamines, traumatic brain injury and elevated thyroid hormones. However, this occurs very rarely, and infections still account for at least 70% of fever occurrences.

Exposing yourself to hot temperatures would also increase your body temperature, like leaving a car out in a hot afternoon or sunbathing on a warm day, but it is not the same as having a fever. One difference is that the latter is a passive transfer of heat to your body from an external source, while a fever is a higher temperature produced internally.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the body regulates its own temperature when exposed to hot weather, maintaining its normal temperature as long as it can through sweating, panting, or increased thirst. Your temperature under this circumstance will only be elevated once the body’s own regulatory mechanism is exhausted, like from dehydration after sweating too much and not taking enough fluids. Fever is different in a way that the body temperature is still high even under a cooler environment and is often not relieved by sweating.

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Fever Treatment

The first way to manage a fever is through cooling techniques like a tepid sponge bath, an increased intake of fluids, wearing looser and cooler clothing, and exposure to cool air. Some people wrap themselves in a warm blanket to induce sweating, just like how grandmothers and mothers would advise us to do. But this is not correct because it raises your body temperature more and studies have shown that this causes more harmful effects than good.

Antipyretic medications such as acetaminophen (also known as paracetamol), aspirin and ibuprofen, are also recommended if you are still feeling warm and uncomfortable. However, pediatricians warn against giving aspirin to children with fever as it can cause bleeding and brain and liver damage (also known as Reye’s Syndrome).

Acetaminophen and ibuprofen can be safely given to children but should be given in correct doses according to the weight of the child to prevent overdosing. These can be bought without a prescription and is either taken by mouth, or through the anus via suppository.

When to See a Doctor

Fevers can resolve on their own within a few days, especially in healthy and immune competent people. However, it is advised that you seek medical consultation with your primary care physician as soon as possible if the fever persists for more than three days.

Emergency room consultation may be warranted if the fever is accompanied with the following symptoms:

  • Body weakness
  • Poor appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Skin rashes
  • Convulsion in children
  • Delirium in adults
  • Skin that is very hot to touch
  • Temperature over 40C (104F)

40C and above might mean that the infection is getting worse and you may need medicine like antimicrobials. Further diagnostic tests like blood tests, urine examinations and x-rays might also be needed to help figure out the cause of fever. If you see these symptoms, do not delay medical consultation as it may result in serious consequences like brain damage or even death, especially in children.