I’ve written before about why fevers are a good thing. As a reminder, they both stimulate our immune system and often slow down if not directly kill infectious organisms. Fevers aren’t comfortable, but they are useful and even important. In fact, before we had antibiotics that were effective against syphilis, syphilis patients were sometimes infected with malaria because the high fevers associated with malaria would kill syphilis and malaria was safer than syphilis!
By suppressing a fever with aspirin or ibuprofen or Tylenol, you’re not allowing the body to go through the course of its normal immune response. This also means that the immune system might not go through all the normal steps to effectively stop itself after the infection is clear. The result can be a less efficient immune response or potentially even increased autoimmunity or allergies. Our bodies have an incredible design. Enzymes that perform different functions are temperature sensitive. Most of our day to day enzymes function best around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Immune enzymes function better at higher temperatures. Chronically low temperatures can mean chronically in-efficient enzyme function in almost every organ system.
How we manage a fever can have profound implications for how quickly we recover from an acute illness as well as how our bodies deal with more chronic complaints. I think of fever as a period of clearing and detoxification. Physiologically, the body actually shuts down digestion during a fever and instead begins to break down muscle to use as fuel. The liver becomes activated to process all of the breakdown and the immune molecules flowing through the body.
Because digestion is shut down, eating during a fever can lead to increased toxicity and can push your body to process more than it should. It can cause toxic undigested food to build up in the digestive tract, which can further stress the liver. It can also pull essential resources away from fighting the infection and toward trying to deal with the food. While hydration is vital during a fever, I do not recommend eating.
Rather than eating, consider drinking water, nettle tea, other herbal teas, vegetable broth, or very dilute juice. If energy is very low, you might drink something like coconut water, which will provide some glucose and great electrolytes without giving the body much to break down and process. Typically, you’d want to fast and give complete rest until the fever has been gone for at least 24 hours. When reintroducing foods, start with broths or blended vegetable soup for the first day and then return to solid foods following your appetite afterwards.
There are a few dangers to fever. A temperature that is too high can cause organ damage, but this typically won’t occur below 107 degrees Fahrenheit. What is far more likely is dehydration since fluids evaporate so much faster from a hotter person. Dehydration can then cause the person to run hotter than they otherwise would, because it’s harder for the body to cool itself naturally. Febrile seizures can occur in children and the risk is higher in a dehydrated child. While febrile seizures typically have no lasting side effects, they can be dangerous if they go on for a long time, if the child falls and hits his or her head. They are also scary for parents to watch!
Knowing what is normal and where the line of safety is when you haven’t navigated a fever this way can sometimes feel a little scary. It’s a good idea to call your doctor and let them know what is going on so they can help you manage. Your naturopath can help you assess if hydration is adequate or if the fever is getting too high. We typically recommend that you call us before the fever hits a dangerous stage so we can reduce your anxiety and help you know how to keep the fever in a safe and useful range. In an infant under 3 months, if the temp reaches 101 call right away. For children 3 months to 13 years, call if the fever has been over 102 for more than 48 hours. Adults don’t tend to spike fevers quite as high, so you may want to call with a temp over 101.5 for more than 48 hours. Remember that fevers will often go up by a degree in the evening, so a relatively high fever in the morning can become an intense fever later in the day. We’re always here to help you manage the fever safely, so even if you’re not sure about a lower fever, we’d prefer that you call than worry. Naturopathic care also has many supportive measures that can help the fever feel less uncomfortable without suppressing it. These include particular herbs, homeopathy, or use of hydrotherapy.
By Erin Westaway, ND