Fever: Ally or Enemy?
"Give me a fever, and I can cure any illness" —Hippocrates
Many parents consider a fever to be something dangerous in itself. There are some parents who are so afraid of fever that if their child's temperature rises to 100 degrees or 101 degrees F, they give them a liver toxin such as acetaminophen or a gut-scraping ibuprofen. Worse yet, there are parents who give their child an aspirin at the first sign of fever, which poses an extremely dangerous risk for the life-threatening Reye's Disease.
How did fever come to be seen as so dangerous a condition that we put our child's well being at risk in order to suppress the temperature?
Let's first consider the functions of fever and how it works. The two functions of fever are:
- To stimulate the immune system.
- To create an inhospitable environment for invading organisms. That is, to turn up the heat high enough that the invading microbes cannot live.
Typically, when any kind of microbe invades the body, it is eaten alive by the first line of defense: macrophages ("big eaters"). Macrophages then recruit other immune system cells and make Interleukin One (IL-1). IL-1 is one of several endogenous pyrogens, which means that it is a part of your body that gives the signal to raise your temperature.
How a Fever is Made
IL-1, along with other pyrogens and proteins, is released into the blood and makes its way up to the hypothalamus in your brain. The hypothalamus performs similar to a perfectionist in that it says the temperature must be just 98.6 degrees F. It also tells us that our hormones must be maintained just right at certain fixed quantities in the bloodstream. So when the picky hypothalamus gets the IL-1 signal, it knows that 98.6 degrees F just isn't
Now we've got the highly unusual circumstance of many invading pathogens, and in extraordinary times like these, the temperature must be raised a few degrees if we're going to get rid of the bug and keep the body healthy. So the hypothalamus makes another biochemical, PGE-2. PGE-2 then increases the body temperature set point, to say 101 degrees or 102 degrees F, or wherever it's determined by the hypothalamus to be sufficient for protecting the body from the bug. So how does the body actually raise its temperature, once the hypothalamus has determined that it's necessary to do so?
If we're still healthy and youthful enough to accomplish everything up to this point, then our heat-generating mechanisms include the following:
- The hormone TRH
Another mechanism that takes place is piloerection, (raising the small hairs), which is associated with suppressed sweat. Sweating is a cooling mechanism, so we now have heat being generated but not much is being lost. This results in a fantastic synergy of self-healing mechanisms in our bodies —a veritable symphony of coordinated responses involved with fever.
The Benefits of Fever
More antibodies, cells trained to specifically attack the exact type of invader that your body is presently suffering from produced more specific to that bug than any pharmaceutical.
More white blood cells (The good guys) produced, circulating, mobilizing and armed to fight off the invading bugs specific to the general category of invader.
More interferon produced (another immune system good guy, which blocks spread of viruses to healthy cells).
Walling off of iron, which bacteria feed on.
Increased temperature, which directly kills microbes. (Most bacteria and viruses actually grow better at temperatures lower than the human body, which is why they like our cool noses in the winter.) Parents, it's not your kids begging for fever-reducing drugs; it's the germs.
What to do if you or your child has a fever?
First and foremost, get adjusted. We want to ensure that your immune system is receiving the proper signals from the brain to properly regulate your body’s temperature. A properly functioning nervous system and immune system is key when your body is having a healthy response to a pathogen.
Our next main goal is to support a fever. A fever of 102 degrees F to 103 degrees F is considered the optimal defense against microbes. Temperatures like these also heal the body most effectively. Supporting a fever
means to work with it. For example, one effect of fever is to slow down peristalsis, which is movement of food through the gut.
To support a fever, we recommend either fasting or eating foods such as broths and water till the fever breaks. Always eliminate sugar, dairy, wheat, and caffeine from your diet when you have a fever. Fever is also best
supported with rest. Even when the child appears sleepy on the outside, the body is working quite hard to carry out all the functions described above.
Exercise and activity both distract body energy from these vitally important immune system processes. We look at acute disease as the body's attempt to cure. Therefore, it is best to support the body's defenses; not suppress them by exercising or working out at these times.
We like to compare the fear of fever symptoms to the fear of your car's engine light. To suppress a fever is like asking your mechanic to disconnect the engine light, rather than asking him or her to identify and fix the
problem that caused the light to come on in the first place. Parents should ask themselves how they can approach their children's symptoms as logically as they approach their cars: do we really want to suppress our warning signals?
In the case of fever, the warning signal is much more of an aid to conquering illness, rather than as a source of damage in itself.
When Medical Attention may be Warranted
To be 100% honest with you, as a parent of a little one I have never needed to resort to medication. We have always listened to her body, adjusted her frequently, made dietary changes, occasionally given her a homeopathic remedy (read the information on homeopathy for children) and she has always healed on her own. However, if you would like some guidelines of when you should seek some help, here they are:
- Infants less than 1-month-old, with a temperature greater than 100.4 degrees F. Seek care right away for fever in this age group. While waiting for care, breastfeed as often as the baby desires. The mother's milk has
antibodies made right at the breast as it encounters pathogens in the baby's mouth.
- Infants from 1-month to 3-months-old, with a temperature greater than 100.4 degrees F, if they appear ill. (You know your child better than anyone. Listen to your instincts, and your child’s body), breastfeed on demand while waiting for care.
- Children between 3 months and 36 months, with a temperature above 102.2 degrees F, if they appear ill. (You know your child better than anyone. Listen to your instincts, and your child’s body).
- Anyone with a temperature over 104.5 degrees F.
- For children not in the above three categories, bed rest and fluids will support the fever and allow it to do the job that your child needs it to do.