When should you treat a fever? That question is not easy to answer. In part, it depends upon how ill the person feels aside from the elevated temperature. Is there pain? Congestion? Nausea and vomiting? How high is the temperature and how long has it been high? No wonder families may find they disagree about treating this symptom.
When Should You Treat a Fever?
Q. Please resolve a family dispute. Every time our daughter has a slight fever, my wife rushes for the Tylenol. I was brought up to believe that a little fever is part of the healing process. Who is right?
A. Surprisingly, experts don’t know the answer to this basic question. While research shows that fever helps lizards fight off infections, there has been incredibly little information when it comes to humans.
Bringing Down the Temperature in Influenza:
Take flu, for example. For decades doctors used to say that if you came down influenza you were supposed to rest in bed, drink plenty of fluids and take aspirin or acetaminophen. In recent years, aspirin has been eliminated from this recommendation because of a fear of Reye’s syndrome. This is a potentially fatal disease that can affect children with viral infections who take aspirin.
Even though there are no well-controlled clinical trials proving that lowering a fever when you have the flu will do any good whatsoever, drug companies have loaded up their OTC remedies with acetaminophen or ibuprofen (another fever reducer). It’s even possible such drugs could be counterproductive by allowing viruses to replicate more efficiently. One study revealed that subjects who came down with the flu were sick longer (up to four days longer) if they took aspirin or acetaminophen (Pharmacotherapy, Dec., 2000).
What Does the Temperature Mean?
An elevated temperature is merely a symptom of an underlying infection. The infection may call for treatment, but a mild fever usually does not. Grandmothers realized this generations ago and often tended to pile on the quilts to help the body attempt to fight off the invading organisms.
More recently, investigators have found that when people develop a mild to moderate fever, they are more likely to survive a serious infection (Australian Critical Care, Aug. 2013). Cancer researchers are reexamining the role of fever in boosting the immune system’s fight against abnormal cells.