Fevers are not to be feared
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It’s interesting how the mention of certain words is guaranteed to cause panic, particularly those of a medical bent. There are so many we could mention (!) but let’s just focus on the one we’d like to talk about today, fevers.
Turn back the clock a few decades and fevers weren’t viewed in the same way as they are today. They were seen as part and parcel of many illnesses, particularly the childhood – often spotty – ones. Chicken Pox, Mumps, Measles and the like.
Come back to today and the prevailing view is that they are “bad”, to be avoided at all costs. And, if you’re unlucky enough to have one, brought down as quickly as possible.
But is it really that simple? Let’s find out.
What exactly is a fever?
Normal body temperature for adults is usually said to be 37°C or 98.6°F and is slightly lower for babies / small children. It varies during the day, being lower in the morning and higher in the evening, in preparation for sleep. To take these fluctuations into account the “normal” range is considered to be 36.1°C to 37.2°C or 97°F to 99°F.
While any temperature over 37°C is technically a fever, it’s not usually classified as one until it reaches 38°C or 98.6°F or over. In most cases it’s nothing to be concerned about and helps the body to fight off an infection.
What does a fever do?
A fever helps the body in two different ways. To start with it makes the body less hospitable – if that’s the right word – to an infection. It slows down the rate at which the infection can multiply – and so spread – around the body. At the same time, a slight rise in body temperature stimulates the Immune System and also increases the amount of interferon in the blood, both of which help fight the infection.
How does a fever happen?
Body temperature is controlled by the Hypothalamus, a part of the forebrain. It has many different functions but the one that’s important here is that it acts as the body’s thermostat.
When an infection is detected in the body, the Hypothalamus resets the thermostat up a notch, increasing our “normal” temperature. This is the reason why we suddenly feel cold – and may be even shiver – as the body generates more heat to bring its temperature up to the new “normal” level. When this happens, we start to feel warm again.
This process is repeated if the new “normal” temperature isn’t sufficient to fight the infection. It’s also the reason why fevers have alternating periods of feeling very chilly and shivery, then hot and feverish.
What else can cause a fever?
So far we’ve only mentioned infections, as these are the most common causes of a fever. In other words, viruses and bacteria. Other less common causes include heat exhaustion and inflammatory conditions such as Rheumatoid Arthritis or teething. Finally, some medications, as well as the body’s reaction to a vaccination, can also trigger a fever.
What should you do?
Usually, a fever only lasts a day or two and can easily be managed at home. This means staying warm in bed and drinking plenty of fluids. Keep the diet light and avoid sugary foods and liquids, as sugar suppresses the Immune System and its ability to fight the infection.
When you should be concerned…
The classic signs to look out for are:
• A fever that’s lasted more than 3 days OR is over 38.9 °C or 102°F.
• Signs of dehydration, including repeated vomiting or diarrhoea.
• A rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is pressed against it.
• Sensitivity to light.
• Stiff neck.
• Confusion, drowsiness or being hard to wake.
• Febrile convulsions.
• Difficult or laboured breathing.
• High pitched moaning or crying.
• Blotchy or grey skin.
However, if you’re in any doubt, appropriate medical advice should ALWAYS be sought, particularly in small babies and those under 6 months old, where the temperature is over 38°C or 98.6°F.
The only time a fever can do harm is when it rises above 106°F or 41°C as these temperatures can damage the Brain and Heart. However, in most cases, the Hypothalamus will keep the body temperature below 104°C or 40°F.
What's the conventional approach?
Ibuprofen and Paracetamol – or Calpol for children – may be used to help bring down the temperature. If the cause is bacterial, antibiotics may also be prescribed.
What else can help?
Our old friends, honey, lemon and / or ginger in hot water are warming and soothing. As is pineapple juice diluted 50 /50 with warm water. And don’t forget old fashioned homemade chicken soup, which is easily digested.
Vitamins A, C D and E, as well as zinc, can all help. Echinacea tincture can be used to help support the Immune System as well as encouraging sweating to help reduce the fever.
Like any acute illness, a little common sense goes a long way and a few days in bed at home usually does the trick. Of course, always keep an eye out for the warning signs and ask for the appropriate medical advice if you’re concerned.
As always, the choice is yours.
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