Busting the five biggest myths about fevers

February seems to be the time of the year when people are most vulnerable to catching a cold or the flu. And often, when someone comes down with one of these winter ailments, they also spike a fever.

Of course, this symptom can be worrisome. But you should know that in most cases, a fever actually helps you get better faster.

So, today, let’s set the record straight and bust some more medical myths about this common cold and flu symptom…

Myth #1: All fevers are bad.

First of all, a fever itself is not an illness. It’s the body’s natural, physiologic response to a viral or bacterial infection. It signals the immune system to ramp up the production of white blood cells and T-cell lymphocytes to stage an attack. (My friend, Dr. Jerry Thornthwaite, was the first to detect and recognize T-cell lymphocytes, also known as “natural killer cells,” back in the 1970s.)

Plus, raising the body’s temperature also slows down the reproduction of microbes that are causing the infection. In this way, a fever is actually a lot like an antibiotic drug — neither completely wipe out the infection. Instead, they both simply slow down the spread of the microbes, allowing your immune system to kick in, catch up, and ultimately fight off the virus or bacteria.

That’s also why, even when you must resort to taking an antibiotic, having a healthy immune system is always the ultimate key to kicking an infection.

Myth #2: Feeling warm to the touch means you have a fever.

Yes, feeling warm to the touch means the body is giving off heat. But a fever isn’t always the culprit…

We know that surface heat can also result from exercise, getting out of a warm bed, or simply being outside on a hot day. And it actually helps the body stay cool.

To accurately check for a fever, you must always take an internal temperature. Below is a guide for internal temperatures that indicate a fever, based on the most common areas for measurement:

  • Armpit: 99° F
  • Oral: 100° F
  • Rectal or ear: 100.4° F

Myth #3: Fevers will keep escalating, if not treated.

The brain has an internal thermostat. So, fevers resulting from infections or viruses typically stop at 103° or 104° F — even without treatment.

They rarely surpass 105° or 106° F, but even then, they don’t cause permanent damage if caused by infection.

I’ll talk a bit more about what to look for in fever ranges in just a minute.

Myth #4: Fevers cause seizures.

Only 4 percent of children are susceptible to febrile seizures (caused by fever).

These seizures may be scary to watch, but they usually cease within 5 minutes and cause no permanent harm. Plus, children who have had febrile seizures demonstrate no greater risk for developmental delays, learning disabilities, or chronic seizure disorders.

Myth #5: ALL fevers need to be treated.

In historical periods, before the advent of acetaminophen (which was actually a huge set-back for therapeutics) and ibuprofen, healers observed that the fever helped slow the infection as the immune system ramped up. Then, when the fever “broke,” healers considered the patient to be in recovery. A fever was considered a “healing crisis,” after which the patient was cured.

Today, natural practitioners continue this tradition by avoiding treating fevers related to a cold or flu, as it typically hastens recovery.

By contrast, mainstream medicine tries to undermine the body’s natural fever response by using potent and potentially dangerous drugs, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®), ibuprofen, or aspirin.

Simple guidelines for different levels of fever

Fevers between 100° and 104° typically:

  • Are no cause for alarm in sick children
  • Are caused by infection
  • Are helpful in fighting off infection
  • Have a short duration
  • Are well-tolerated by the body
  • Don’t require medical intervention
  • Aren’t associated with causing brain damage (the body literally won’t kill itself, while trying to kill off a microbial infection)

Fevers above 108° can cause serious medical issues and require immediate medical attention.

Of course, there are always exceptions. For instance, any fever in a newborn up to three months should get medical attention.

But, in general, there’s no real reason to get all hot and bothered by a typical, run-of-the-mill fever caused by a cold virus or the flu. In fact, it could be just what you need to kick the virus to the curb and start feeling great again.

In the end, thermometer readings don’t tell the whole story. And you should always look at other visible symptoms to determine if immediate medical treatment is necessary.

P.S. – Dehydration is the biggest danger (especially to infants) with a fever. Fortunately, there are plenty of handy techniques you can use at home to prevent dehydration. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s Daily Dispatch for more.


“American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report: Fever and Antipyretic Use in Children,” Pediatrics 2011 Mar;127(3):580-7