Fever – A friend or a foe?
It’s likely that you’ll get a cold or flu this year at some point. How you choose to deal with it may actually be more important for your long term health than you realize. As a naturopathic Doctor, I think about these acute illnesses a little differently than you’re used to and I find it’s helpful for my patients to understand my thought process. Hopefully this will help you take a new perspective on this year’s cold or flu.
The body is smart. This is the principle from which I operate. When we get acutely ill, often this is the body’s attempt to get rid of something harmful. The mucous produced in a respiratory infection helps to clear out infectious organisms (if we let it). When we have food poisoning, diarrhea helps to clear out the organism. When we sweat during a fever, we decrease our inflammation.
Getting an occasional acute illness and then clearing it in a short period of time tells us that the immune system is capable of responding and is doing its job. When I have patients who do not get acutely ill at all for several years, I begin to be concerned that they may not be releasing things from their body and may be building up inflammatory toxins, which can lead to more chronic illness. I also wonder if the immune system is working effectively in these patients, which you need it to do in order to prevent long term issues like cancer.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want my patients to be excessively ill or to be sick frequently or for long periods of time. I just want to know that the body is getting rid of things every so often, responding appropriately, and recovering efficiently. Ideally, my patients would have no more than 1 cold or flu/year and no less than 1 fever every 3 years.
Finally, it forces you to slow down. Let’s face it; many of you will only pause when you’re sick. Often getting sick is your body’s way of telling you that something needs to shift. Maybe it’s just that you need a break for a few days or it may be that there is a larger pattern in life that needs to be changed.
Why Fevers Are Useful:
A Fever is the body’s way of stimulating the immune system. Many parts of the immune system are temperature activated. Immune activity tends to be greater at higher temperatures. Conversely, many bacteria and viruses do not replicate as quickly at higher temperatures. By creating a fever, the body is able to stimulate its own defenses and slow down the infectious organism in order to fight the infection more effectively. By allowing the fever to run its course, you actually allow your body to fight the infection faster! Many of the aches and pains we feel during a fever are actually caused by our own immune activity, not the infectious organism itself. When we suppress the fever with Paracetamol, Advil, Motrin, or Aspirin, we’re actually interfering with our immune system’s ability to fight. Fevers are uncomfortable it’s true, but they do have a purpose.
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 41.6 degrees C (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 38.3C/ 101 F call right away. For children 3 months to 13 years, call if the fever has been over 38.8C/102 F 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 38.6C/ 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.
Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when it comes to Children:
- Pay more attention to how the child is looking/feeling than what the thermometer says. A really sick looking kid is really sick, no matter what the temperature (high or low!). Sometime kids will get listless, stop crying and cannot be stimulated. Other times they are uncontrollably cry and are irritable. Follow your parent instincts!
- Another myth: Breaking the fever will stop the infection- The chemicals that cause the fever will signal the immune system to do its job. We don’t want to interfere with that process.
- Wait on the Paracetamol!… Again, its how your child looks is most important determinant of whether the child has a serious infection.
- All that said.. It is NEVER normal for a newborn to have a fever. Any infant under the age of 3 months with a fever (greater than 100.4 F/38.0 C) needs to be checked out.
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 has many supportive measures that can help the fever feel less uncomfortable without suppressing it. These include herbs, homeopathy, or use of hydrotherapy.
Due to MOH regulations, I do not prescribe prescription drugs in Singapore, if a situation arise that would warrant conventional antibiotics or need further evaluation, we have a great network of GP’s and pediatricians that we refer to outside the clinic if needed.