Sarena-Rae Santos is a contributing writer.
Many parents fear fevers. As soon as their child spikes a fever, they worry. They rush to call the doctor, obsessively taking their child’s temperature, and giving acetaminophen or other fever-reducing medications. They worry that temperatures above 101ºF are “too high,” and they’ll try anything to ease the fever. Some parents even alternate fever reducers to ensure the fever remains gone.
Is this the right way to handle a fever?
Almost never. Parents who respond this way do not understand why fevers happen. This isn’t the parent’s fault; this is a mainstream fear tactic. A fever is not an illness. It is a symptom of an illness. It’s a sign that the body’s natural immune defense is trying to fight off a bug.
Next time someone in your house has a fever, don’t rush to call the doctor or pop a painkiller. Instead, support the fever and the overall immune system!
What A Fever Does in the Body
Before you do anything, it’s vital to understand the reason we get fevers (which will help us see why lowering them is not the best ideas!).
We’re exposed to germs all the time. But sometimes, when we’re rundown they can get a foothold in our bodies…and then we get sick.
When our immune systems functions correctly, the body senses these foreign substances and launches a natural defense mechanism – among other things, a fever. The increased temperature also activates other immune defenses to kill the bug.
We have two immune systems – the innate immune system and the acquired immune system. The innate immune system is the body’s first responder, creating barriers to protect the body. The acquired immune system makes antibodies to protect against harmful diseases (1). Both immune systems come together to fulfill three primary roles:
- Fight disease-causing germs (pathogens), removing them from the body
- Recognize and neutralize harmful substances from the body
- Fight disease-causing changes in the body, such as cancer cells (2)
Studies have estimated that the human antibody repertoire has the potential to make a quintillion (one million trillion) unique antibodies. The body (or immune system) stores all the information about a germ after its first encounter, especially how to fight it. Then, if it ever returns, the body recognizes it, analyzes the data, and can fight it faster. Think of this process as a germ-fighting army. The antigens have waited their entire life with special intel on this particular intruder; now, their only mission is to destroy it.
The fever is one of the body’s tools in activating the immune system to effectively do its job! It literally mobilizes parts of the immune system to fight, as well as suppressing/killing germs by creating an inhospitable environment (30).
Can Fevers Get Too High?
Some parents worry about brain damage, but this is extremely unlikely unless the temperature reaches the 105 – 107ºF range (20). Typically the body will not naturally allow the temperature to go high enough to cause itself damage. Fever is a way to help the body fight off illness, and it will not harm itself in the process. Extremely high fevers that can cause damage are often because the parents tried to artificially lower the fever or were caused by vaccines/medication. Normal, natural illnesses do not cause these violent fevers.
Some parents worry about febrile seizures. These generally occur if the temperature spikes are very high, very quickly. Even if the fever doesn’t go that high, the rapid change causes them, not the number on the thermometer. Again, this is usually a reaction to a vaccine, a parent’s attempt to lower the temperature artificially, sunstroke, or some other “unnatural” toxin being introduced to the body.
Natural illnesses usually do not spike fevers very quickly, they tend to rise slowly, and febrile seizures are extremely rare. Should they occur, though, they are not harmful. They are part of the body’s attempt to regain homeostasis, and they do not cause permanent damage. They are scary to watch, but they will not hurt your child. Most doctors recommend getting seen with the first febrile seizure to ensure that’s what it is, but after that, they can usually be handled at home.
Is Lowering A Fever A Good idea?
You might say, “Okay, but my child is miserable and doesn’t rest very well with a fever. Isn’t it better to lower it and allow them to sleep? What’s the real harm in lowering it a little?”
Unfortunately, a lot! First, the immune system can’t effectively activate with the fever absent because the catalyst – the fever – is no longer there. The fever is necessary to activate the additional immune defenses!
When we rush to lower a fever, a variety of things happen. Suddenly the temperature is no longer high enough to kill the intruder, which means that the bug can multiply and spread more effectively. This prolongs the illness because our immune system lost the opportunity to kill the bug when it was milder or there were fewer germs. Basically, “treating” a fever instead of supporting it extends the bug’s visit.
Normal fevers (as part of illness) are controlled by the body’s hypothalamus (in the brain). The hypothalamus has specifically directed the body to raise its set temperature, and will not allow that temperature to get too high or dangerous. When you try to lower it, the body will fight against it – and this can be problematic!
Second, acetaminophen and ibuprofen can be pretty dangerous. These medications are the #1 and #2 causes of liver failure in this country (and other developed countries, including Canada and the UK) (3,4). Acetaminophen depletes glutathione, which functions heavily in immune function (5). Also, since these medications are foreign substances and therefore effectively small doses of poison, the body’s resources are directed towards clearing the body of this “poison” before it can do any harm, instead of fighting the actual illness!
Additional Risks of Acetaminophen
- Increased risk of end-stage renal disease (6)
- Cardiometabolic risk (7)
- Increased risk of kidney cancer (8)
- It affects emotional processing (9)
- It May have neurodevelopmental consequences during pregnancy (10)
- Linked to Stevens-Johnson Syndrome (11)
- Endocrine disruptor (12)
- Linked to asthma (13)
Read more about it HERE.
Risks of Ibuprofen
- May cause stomach problems such as peptic (bleeding) ulcers (14)
- Increases your risk of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, and heart failure (15)
- Damages your liver, leading to liver toxicity (16)
- Lower birth weight consequences during pregnancy (17)
- May cause severe kidney problems in an unborn baby (18)
- Higher risk of hearing loss (19)
Read more about it HERE.
The reality is that over-the-counter drugs cause more harm than good. Medications may lower fever for a while, but fevers may spike higher once the effects wear off while attempting to rid the illness. That’s why a child whose fever is treated might be sick for days longer. Would you rather have an unhappy, uncomfortable child for 12 – 24 hours or 3 – 4 days? That can be the real difference between treating or not treating a fever.
How To Support A Fever Naturally
You may be wondering, “so I am supposed to do nothing?” Obviously, it flies in the face of our instincts as parents to do nothing. When our child is hurting or sick or upset, we want to do something. But the vast majority of illnesses are over-treated because of anxious parents who just want to “do something” to help.
There are things we can do. Medicating isn’t my recommendation. But there are other ways to help.
If your kids want to sleep, let them! Rest is one of the best medicines! Cuddle with your kids, read stories, and watch a movie. If they’re up for it, allow them to play or go outside for a little while. Of course, as long as it’s not too cold. The fresh air will do everyone some good.
Go with what is comfortable. Sweating a fever out can be a good thing that allows the fever to do its job and rid your body of the infection building. Some kids prefer to bundle up, while others like to wear light, loose-fitting clothing. I just check to be sure that they don’t get chilled. I’ll have them put on something a little warmer if they do.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to keep hydrated. Keeping hydrated is a must! Often when you have a fever, you lose appetite–this is normal when our bodies fight off infection, but you can not stop drinking fluids. It is very easy to become dehydrated when sick. Focus on keeping fluids in your body. Dehydration can be a greater danger than the fever itself. Some hydration ideas include:
- Water — What more needs to be said about water?
- Herbal Teas — There are different tea blends that you can make that will help heal and offer relief. Herbs to pick from would be elderflower, yarrow, ginger, and catnip. Some of these herbs do not have the greatest flavor, but they go down much easier when combined with peppermint and sweetened with raw honey. You could also try making popsicles out of one of these teas.
- Electrolyte drinks — Such as Lemon Ginger Sports Drink, Sparkling Vanilla “Soda,” or plain coconut water keep your body hydrated. If you cannot make your own, please buy coconut water or try this electrolyte powder. Whatever you do, avoid the sports drinks from the store. They can cause a world of harm.
- Popsicles — This is a fun way to stay hydrated! Try our Cooling Lemon Chamomile Popsicles; they are full of electrolytes and soothing herbs.
- Bone broth — Chicken stock is full of vitamins and minerals that your body needs to get well. Sipping a warm cup of bone broth a few times a day will give you extra strength and nutrition to speed up the healing process. Canned broth is not a sufficient substitute because it lacks the nutrients needed. Bone broths are loaded with essential vitamins and minerals that heal and nourish the body.
If the child is merely restless, try a bath with Epsom salts and/or yarrow. Another fantastic herbal option is Earthley’s Detox Bath. Make sure the water is warm. If it is too cool, the body will react by raising the fever to compensate. Climb in with your child and snuggle; breastfeed if you can. Then wrap your child in clean, warm clothes and put them to bed. Usually, the Epsom salts and/or lavender oil (essential oil only, please) are calming enough to allow the child to sleep.
Body aches are actually due to lymphatic congestion. The immune system is very active, killing germs, and there is lots of extracellular waste. Plus, you’re not moving around much, and the lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump, so cellular debris gets trapped and leads to that characteristic low back pain. A hot detox bath and lymphatic cream can help much more with this than treating it like a typical ‘muscle ache.’
Herbs and Supplements
- Ginger 34
- Cinnamon (29)
- Coconut oil – antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties (21)
- Cod liver oil – rich source of vitamin A, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids (22,23,24)
- Echinacea – reduce inflammation and improve immunity (25,26)
- Feel Better Fast – Aside from containing echinacea, this herbal remedy has astragalus root and elderflower, immune-supporting herbs (27,28)
- Magnesium (31)
- Raw garlic – aside from improving immunity (37), raw garlic is notable for being quercetin-rich (anti-inflammatory and immune supporting) (38, 39,40,41)
- Vitamin C – essential for absorbing iron, forming collagen, immune system functionality, wound healing, and more (42,43,44,45,46)
- Zinc – supports the immune system while also having a protective anti-inflammatory effect (47,48,49,50,51)
Final Thoughts on Fevers
It takes some time to re-wire our thinking on fevers. We’ve long been told to fear them, lower them, and see them as signs that something is very wrong. And while they are a sign, they mean our immune systems are doing their jobs, and we need to allow that to happen! It may feel scary or weird at first, but once you get used to new ways of providing support, it will feel normal.
Finally, drugs are best saved for true emergencies and should not be used so casually. If it’s life or death, take the drug! (Hopefully, in that case, under a doctor’s care!) If it’s a minor, temporary annoyance, like ear infections, fevers, colds, flus, headaches, etc. — just ride it out and use natural comfort measures.
Our bodies cannot be ‘deficient’ in drugs, so we should not turn to them as a primary means of getting well. We can be deficient in vitamins, minerals, etc. We can support our bodies with natural means to correct any deficiencies and help our bodies fight for themselves.
And remember, you know your body and your child best. In the end, do what your instinct tells you and what is suitable for your family.