You wake up with a warm/chilly/generally icky feeling, and when you take your temperature it’s confirmed: You have a fever. The first thing to realize is that a fever is a natural, and often helpful, mechanism that’s happening in your body. According to the journal Nature Reviews Immunology, we warm-blooded humans have been getting fevers in response to infections throughout our evolution. It’s a physiological response that helps us survive those infections, and the temperature rise that a fever brings actually helps boost our bodies’ immune response.
“Generally speaking, a fever is rarely on its own much of a concern,” says Cory Fisher, DO, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic. “The whole clinical picture is more important than the temperature — unless it’s extremely high. Having severe symptoms like shortness of breath, difficulty focusing and lethargy, confusion or any worsening acute symptoms in the face of a fever would be concerning. Also, a fever is pretty common in the first few days of an infection, and it usually starts on day one or two. If you develop a fever after 4 or 5 days of feeling ill, this should prompt a call to the doctor.”
Here’s more information about fevers, how to treat them and when to see a doctor.
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How high of a temperature indicates a fever?
First, some fluctuation in your temperature is normal — it can go up and down slightly throughout the day (it’s often a little higher at night), and can be higher, say, when you have your period, you’re feeling super-stressed or upset, you just took a spin class or you’re overheated from the outside temperature (especially when the humidity is high as well).
The definition of how high a temperature equals a fever differs by source. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a fever as a temperature of 100.4 or higher. The National Institute of Health’s MedlinePlus says in adults, it can be anything above 99, and in kids, it depends on how you’re measuring the fever (ranging from 99 when measured under the arm to 100.4 when taking rectally).
How to break a fever:
There are many of classic ways (some of which our own parents swore by) to supposedly break a fever — but, says Dr. Fisher, “The fever will ‘break’ when the immune system calms down. In the meantime, the approaches to a fever are really just comfort measures.” Nothing wrong with comfort, though, so here are some methods to try.
- Take a lukewarm bath: When your body temperature is high, it can be comforting to immerse yourself in a bath that’s not too warm and not too cool. And it may help reduce body temperature, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
- Try cool compresses: A cool washcloth on your forehead or face may also help lower core body temperature, says Dr. Fisher, but don’t overdo this or the tepid bath, he adds. Remember: The fever will break in response to your immune system.
- Hydrate: It’s important to get plenty of fluids when you have a fever, says Medline Plus. Other ways you can stay hydrated is with ice pops and juicy foods like watermelon and cucumbers. If you don’t feel like eating, though, don’t force it — stick to water (add in a little juice for flavor, or try a low-sugar electrolyte beverage).
- Get loads of rest: When you’re sick, your immune system needs rest, so this is a smart time to listen to your body, and slow down and relax. Activity can raise your body temperature, the Mayo Clinic points out, so rest is especially important now.
- Dress lightly: Even if you have the chills, don’t bundle up — this can make your body temperature go up, rather than down.
Can you force a fever to break?
In a word: No. Remember what Dr. Fisher said: The fever will break when your immune system calms down.
Medications for adults with a fever:
Common over-the-counter recommendations include ibuprofen and acetaminophen. “I would suggest taking ibuprofen or naproxen for a fever,” says Dr. Fisher. “They typically work a little better for fevers than acetaminophen. That said, be careful about taking these if you have any chronic medical conditions or are on any medications. Clear them with your doctor if you have any concerns.”
How to treat a child with a fever:
It’s easy to go into parent-panic when you see your child is feverish — but know that it’s often nothing to worry about. Like in adults, it’s an indication that your child’s body is fighting something off. One helpful thing to notice is your child’s behavior: After you treat their discomfort with whatever over-the-counter medication their doctor recommends, are they playing normally, eating like usual and not unusually fussy or tired? Are they alert and smiley, and is their skin the tone it normally is? Then it’s probably not serious, according to the NIH’s Medline Plus.
Medications for kids for a fever:
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that either acetaminophen or ibuprofen, in children’s formulations, can be used for a fever. Make sure you’re using an age-appropriate formulation (for example, ibuprofen infant drops shouldn’t be given to a toddler), and never give aspirin to a child of any age: It’s been linked to side effects, including Reye syndrome, a serious ailment that affects the liver and brain. It’s best to speak with your doctor when it comes to medicines for kids.
When to see a doctor for a fever:
The AAP advises that you get in touch with your child’s doctor if the fever repeatedly goes above 104, or if you observe these other symptoms as well:
- Very sleepy or fussy
- A terrible headache or sore throat, or a stiff neck
- Throwing up repeatedly or has diarrhea
- Illness is getting worse
And of course, any time that you’re concerned about your child’s fever, talk to the pediatrician.
Definitely get in touch with your doctor if your fever reaches 103 (or higher!) and hangs around. Take note of other symptoms (coughing, sneezing, rash, pain when peeing, etc.), including any symptoms of Covid-19, and relay those to the doctor as well. Dr. Fisher adds, “A fever that starts after the fourth or fifth day of illness should also prompt a call to the doctor.”
Lisa heads up a team of editors that produces health, wellness, nutrition, and fitness content for Good Housekeeping, Prevention, and Woman’s Day. The former executive editor of The Good Life, Women’s Health, and Parenting magazines and senior editor at Esquire and Glamour, she has specialized over the years in producing investigative health reports and other stories that help people live their healthiest possible lives. She’s won many editing awards, including the National Magazine Award, and one of her best days at work was when President and Michelle Obama each tweeted a link to one of her articles. Lisa lives on Long Island, and has two daughters and (despite the fact that she’s a dog person) two cats.
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