Why You Shouldn’t Treat a Fever (Most of the Time)

mother taking child's temperature with a thermometer

Every parent hates seeing their child sick with a fever. It’s pretty awful to have one if you’re an adult, too! However it is unnecessary—and not even wise—to hurry to the medicine cabinet when you or your loved one has a fever. Here’s why…

What is a Fever?

The Greek physician Hippocrates, who is often called the father of Western medicine, wrote about the beneficial effects of fever more than 2,000 years ago. In the 17th century, the English doctor Thomas Sydenham called fever “nature’s engine which she brings into the field to remove her enemy.”

Fever is a simply a sign that you or your child is fighting off some kind of infection, like a cold, flu, or ear infection. A fever is not an illness in itself. Rather, it’s an important part of the healing process.

In most cases, a fever is part of the body’s natural response, and evidence shows it should be allowed to run its course.

Febrile Seizures Do Not Cause Harm

A lot of parents fear that a fever can cause brain damage to their children, but this a myth. According to the National Library of Medicine, brain damage from a fever generally will not occur unless the fever is over 107.6°F (42°C).

Untreated fevers caused by infection will very seldom go over 105°F unless the patient is overdressed, trapped in a hot place or has a pre-existing brain disorder. This is because the brain has an internal regulatory mechanism that prevents fevers caused by infections from getting higher than 105 or 106 degrees.

Only 4 percent of children have fever seizures—marked by a momentary loss of consciousness, eyes rolling back, shaking, twitching, or stiffening. Most febrile seizures are over quickly and do not mean your child has epilepsy or brain damage. Febrile seizures do not cause any permanent harm.

Fevers Boost the Immune System

The evidence for letting a fever run its course is substantial.

“Fever is the body’s normal response to infection—it’s a natural defense mechanism,” says Janice Sullivan, a professor of pediatric clinical care and clinical pharmacology at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. She says that a high temperature triggers the body’s production of infection-fighting white blood cells:

“If you lower the fever, you may be affecting the body’s ability to respond to that infection.”

In the November 2011 Journal of Leukocyte Biology, studies show that elevated body temperature helps certain types of immune cells to work better. Your immune system’s B-cells, T-cells and neutrophils work better when your body is hot. So, a fever (even a high one) is evidence that the immune system is hard at work literally burning off the infection.

Evidence shows that fevers benefit the immune system over the long term, too. A study published in the February 2004 Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that children who ran a fever during their first year were less likely to develop allergies later in childhood than children who did not have fever.

With a fever, your immune system works better, so why cripple that?

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Try These Other Remedies…

Medication Might Do More Harm Than Good

Most conventional methods of lowering a fever can do more harm than good. Recent evidence shows that lowering a fever with medication might actually prolong a cold or flu.

But aside from making your illness last longer than it has to, aspirin, Tylenol, Motrin and Advil can have deadly side effects too, in both children and adults.

Acetaminophen (also known as Tylenol or Paracetamol) can cause liver damage and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can cause kidney damage and heart attacks, even in small overdoses, because children’s bodies are so small. These side effects are common in adults too, especially if you have an ongoing chronic illness or autoimmune disease.

In fact, acetaminophen is the number one cause of liver failure in the United Kingdom, and the 2nd most common cause in the U.S. This is because it takes a huge amount of glutathione (your liver’s main antioxidant) to detox the drug from your body.

If there isn’t enough glutathione present in the body to detox the drug—which is common if you take too much or in people with poor diets and certain medical and genetic conditions—damage can quickly occur.

Even worse, some studies suggest a strong link between acetaminophen use and autism, asthma, and—when taken during pregnancy–ADHD and neurological disorders in children. And on top of all of that, using acetaminophen (Tylenol) to treat a fever isn’t even thought to improve health outcomes.

Why risk it?

Old fashioned aspirin might seem like a better alternative, but aspirin should NEVER be given to children or adolescents with fevers. The combination of aspirin and a viral infection may lead to Reye’s syndrome, a rare yet potentially fatal liver disorder.

The biggest risk in lowering fever with any medication, however, is that it can mask other symptoms of illness that might be present (such as a stiff neck or stomach pain), making it harder to tell if you or your child might really need medical attention.

Medication can also lead you into thinking you or your child is feeling better when they really aren’t yet, causing you to go back to school or work when the illness is actually still quite contagious.

Finally, children’s fever-reducing medications are typically full of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, and preservatives— ingredients to avoid giving to children even when they are feeling well.

Natural Ways of Handling a Fever

Here are some easy, natural ways to comfort someone who has a fever, without using drugs:

  • Give lots of water and herbal tea to stave off dehydration and help the body flush out the illness. Avoid juice and other sugary drinks because sugar can depress the immune system.
  • An 8-ounce glass of water with a half teaspoon of natural sea salt and a half teaspoon of honey can help prevent or stop children’s febrile convulsions by restoring electrolyte homeostasis in the body.
  • Old fashioned cod liver oil can reduce the duration of the illness and provide important immune boosting nutrients like Vitamins A and D. (where to find online)
  • Most of your immune system is located in the friendly bacteria living in your gut. Give extra probiotics during illness to support the immune system and gut health. You can offer capsules or powders, but probiotic foods like homemade sauerkraut or kefir can provide many times more healthy bacteria than a pill.
  • Give a teaspoon full of raw honey or other natural cough remedies to ease any cough or sore throat that might be present.
  • Use a homemade vapor rub to soothe sore muscles, ease breathing and open up a stuffy nose.
  • Offer lots of bone broth/stock and homemade soup to nourish the patient, replenish electrolytes, and provide nutrients that will aid in healing.
  • Keep the sick person comfortably dressed or covered, but don’t bundle them up or heat up the room, even if they are shivering. Also, don’t try to cool the patient down with ice packs or rubbing alcohol. This can cause the fever to boomerang back even higher.
  • To lower (but not eliminate) a fever and relieve sore muscles, offer a lukewarm bath with epsom salts or magnesium chloride flakes.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

In the majority of cases, a fever is natural and healthy, and should be allowed to run its course. There are exceptions where it is important to seek medical care right away, and make sure there is not a more serious problem.

According to MedLine:

Call a doctor or go to urgent care right away if your CHILD has:

  • A rectal temperature of 100.4 degrees or greater in an infant less than 6 weeks old. “Young babies are at more risk for certain serious bacterial infections, and fever is an indication of these,” says Dr. Ari Brown.
  • A fever of more than 2-3 days duration.
  • High fever accompanied by lethargy—your child is limp and unresponsive, won’t make eye contact, or generally just looks and acts really sick.
  • Constant, inconsolable crying.
  • High fever accompanied by any of the symptoms of meningitis: an unusual skin rash, severe headache, aversion to light, confusion, stiff or painful neck.
  • Has other symptoms that suggest an illness may need to be treated, such as an earache, pain with urination, or abdominal pain.
  • Recently had a vaccination.
  • Has been exposed to toxins or poisons that may have caused the fever.
  • Has a serious medical illness, such as a heart problem, sickle cell anemia, diabetes, or cystic fibrosis.
  • Has trouble with their immune system (because of chronic steroid therapy, a bone marrow or organ transplant, spleen removal, HIV, or cancer treatment).
  • Has recently traveled to another country.

Call your doctor or go to urgent care right away if you or another ADULT:

  • Have a fever for longer than 48 to 72 hours.
  • Have had fevers come and go for up to a week or more, even if they are not very high.
  • Have other symptoms that suggest an illness may need to be treated, such as an earache, pain with urination or abdominal pain.
  • High fever accompanied by any of the symptoms of meningitis: an unusual skin rash, severe headache, aversion to light, confusion, stiff or painful neck.
  • Have been exposed to toxins or poisons that may have caused the fever.
  • Have a serious medical illness, such as a heart problem, sickle cell anemia, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, COPD, or other chronic lung problems.
  • Recently had a vaccination.
  • Have trouble with your immune system (from chronic steroid therapy, a bone marrow or organ transplant, spleen removal, HIV, or cancer treatment).
  • Have recently traveled to another country.

Call 911 if ANYONE (child or adult) has a fever and:

  • Cannot be awakened easily or at all.
  • Seems confused.
  • Cannot walk.
  • Has difficulty breathing, even after the nose is cleared.
  • Has blue lips, tongue, or nails.
  • Refuses to or cannot move an arm or leg.

Updated November 1, 2021