Sweating Out a Fever and Other Common Fever Myths

By Ashley Henshaw. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

For family caregivers, having a child at home with a fever can be scary and stressful. Even adults tend to ignore their fever symptoms or fail to get treatment in a timely fashion, relying on outdated and inaccurate information instead.

Rather than simply trust the myths often surrounding fever treatment, it’s best to carefully evaluate which step you should take next.

Myth: You should try to “sweat” out a fever to recover faster.

This is a common fever belief, and unfortunately, it’s misguided. It’s the increase in internal body temperature of a fever that helps fight viral and bacterial infections, not sweating. So, piling on excessive layers of wool blankets and looking for beads of sweat isn’t the right approach.

The focus during a fever should be on making a person more comfortable, which may include using a fever-reducing medicine such as acetaminophen. As the body raises the temperature, people sometimes may feel chills. Blankets are fine in most cases if they make a person more comfortable, but the goal should be comfort, not sweat.

Myth: You should try to bring a fever down as soon as it appears.

During a fever, the body:

  • slows down bacteria and viruses;
  • revs up the infection-fighting machinery; and
  • boosts white blood cell counts.

Thus, a fever isn’t always something that needs to be immediately cured. Research supports the idea that leaving a fever alone (when no other symptoms are present) can help speed up recovery because it’s enabling the body to fight off sickness naturally. Meanwhile, taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen may help ease discomfort.

Myth: Anything above 98.6 degrees F is a fever.

Experts note that 98.6 degrees is the average body temperature. However, some people may have slightly lower or higher normal body temperatures (e.g., children are generally higher, while seniors are generally lower).

Furthermore, a healthy person’s temperature can vary by a full degree over the course of the day. Fevers usually start at about 100-102 degrees F, and even that is considered a low-grade fever.

Myth: You can diagnose a fever by touch.

The habitual method of using the back of the hand pressed to a child’s forehead is not a proper way of diagnosing a fever. Children are not only naturally warmer, but may also give off heat just from playing or sleeping in a warm bed.

It’s even possible to misjudge whether a child has a fever when using a thermometer, as the type of thermometer needs to be taken into consideration. Follow these type of thermometer guidelines for detecting a fever:

  • Armpit thermometers: 99 degrees F or higher
  • Oral thermometers: 100 degrees F or higher
  • Rectal, ear or temporal artery thermometers: 100.4 degrees F or higher

Myth: 105-degree fevers in children can cause brain damage.

There are rumors that a fever of 104-105 degrees F can lead to brain damage in children. Fortunately, that’s not true. Higher fevers are just more common in children because their immune systems are less mature.

There is a point, however, when brain damage does become a possibility, but that is at about 107 degrees F. This is extremely rare and usually only occurs alongside specific disorders or conditions, such as a brain disorder, a heat stroke or a severe reaction to general anesthesia.

Myth: Ice baths are a good way to lower a fever.

There are a couple problems with using ice baths to lower fevers. First, it’s only temporary – the fever may lower while in the bath, but will return to its previous state afterward. Second, an ice bath may lower the body’s temperature too quickly and subsequently cause shivering and ultimately, an even higher body temperature. To ease discomfort, it’s better to enjoy a lukewarm bath or use a washcloth dipped in lukewarm water.

Exceptions That Require Immediate Medical Attention

Seek immediate medical attention when any child under 3 or 4 months of age has a fever of 100.4 degrees F or more. Another instance is if an individual experiencing a fever also has an underlying condition that requires careful monitoring of potential infections, such as heart problems.

Next Steps

For the young and healthy, sometimes the cause of a fever is clear, and the best way to treat a fever is by getting plenty of rest, drinking plenty of water and taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen to manage discomfort. If you or a loved one is displaying other symptoms (particularly rashes, irritability or altered mental status), seek medical attention.

Otherwise, as previously mentioned, there are times when it’s best to let the fever run its course (e.g., during a viral illness). Then, the focus should be on comfort.

For Caregivers

As a caregiver, your approach to fevers can be a bit different from the general population’s, depending on what you and your loved one are dealing with. For example, if your loved one is undergoing chemotherapy, fever is considered an emergency requiring immediate medical attention.

Likewise, while a younger and healthier individual might ride out a fever of 104 F degrees from the flu, an older, frailer person might be better off if seen by a doctor sooner rather than later, even for a temperature of 102 degrees F.

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