Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, although this can vary slightly among individuals. However, there are many conditions that can cause the body temperature to rise above the standard 98.6 degrees mark. A temporary rise in the body’s temperature caused by a disease or illness is what is known as a fever.
A fever is a rise in body temperature that occurs as a result of something out of the ordinary occurring within the body. A fever is indicated any time the body temperature is elevated beyond the normal 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
How high the fever is does not necessarily correlate with the seriousness of the condition that is causing it. For example, minor illnesses such as an ear infection often present high fevers in children. This type of infection is easily treated with a course of antibiotics. Some serious illnesses, such as leukemia, can present with recurring low-grade fevers.
Symptoms of a fever will depend on how high the body temperature is elevated and what the underlying cause is. A fever can often be detected when a hand is placed on the forehead. The higher the fever is, the more warm to the touch the individual will feel. However, this is not an accurate method of diagnosing fever and should not replace the use of a thermometer. Remember, when a person feels warm or hot to the touch it is a good indicator that body temperature should be measured with a thermometer. Some additional symptoms that may occur with a fever include:
- Muscle aches
- Loss of appetite
When a fever is present, it generally indicates that there is something abnormal occurring in the body. There are many conditions that can cause body temperature to become elevated. Occasionally, an underlying cause is not detected. This is referred to as fever of unknown origin. Some conditions that can cause a fever to develop include:
- Viral infection
- Bacterial infection
- Recent immunizations
- Antibiotics and other medications
- Severe sunburn
- Chronic inflammatory conditions
- Malignant tumors
- Heat exhaustion
- Strenuous physical activity
- High humidity levels
Although fever itself is generally not dangerous, it is a good idea to have the underlying cause determined by your doctor. This is especially true for infants, small children, the elderly and individuals with a compromised immune system.
Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and will conduct a physical exam to try to determine the underlying cause for the fever. If your doctor suspects that there may be more than a simple viral illness causing the fever, he may order diagnostic tests to look for the root of the problem or to confirm a suspected diagnosis. Tests may include blood tests and x-rays. For fevers that do not respond to treatment or last for longer than 3 weeks, your doctor may refer you to a specialist for additional diagnostic testing.
Treatment for a fever depends on the underlying cause and how high the body temperature is. For high fevers over 103 degrees Fahrenheit in adults and older children, your doctor may recommend the use of fever-lowering medications such as Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen. The same medications will be prescribed to infants and small children if body temperature rises beyond 101 degrees Fahrenheit.
For fevers that develop as a result of bacterial infections, such as strep throat or acute otitis media (ear infection), antibiotics will be prescribed to treat the underlying cause. While antibiotics will not treat the fever, they will treat the infection that is triggering the fever, which will result in a lower body temperature. Fevers that occur as a result of bacterial infections will generally go away within 24 to 48 hours after starting antibiotics.
There are a number of home remedies that can be used to help lower body temperature and ease the discomfort of a fever. Although none of these remedies will treat the fever itself, they can help lower body temperature temporarily. Some home remedies for fever include:
- Staying hydrated. Fluids are lost quickly when a fever is present. This can lead to dehydration. Drinking plenty of water or fruit juices will help keep you hydrated. Clear broth, decaffeinated tea, gelatin and ice pops will also keep you hydrated.
- Rest. It is important to take it easy and get adequate rest when you have a fever. Your body works hardest to repair and heal itself when you are at rest. Resting can help prevent your fever from climbing, as any type of activity can elevate your body temperature.
- Keep cool. Refrain from piling on blankets and bundling up in warm clothing. Stick to light clothing that breathes well and use only a sheet when sleeping. This may be difficult when a fever is accompanied by chills. However, bundling up in sweaters and heavy blankets will only increase your body temperature. Keep the room at a comfortable temperature.
- Take a lukewarm bath. Fill the tub with lukewarm water (room temperature) and submerge in the water for up to 10 minutes. Make sure the water is not at all cold.Cold water only cools off the surface, but does not to lower internal body temperature. In fact, cold water can lead to chills and shivering, which will elevate body temperature even more and cause the fever to spike. If you experience chills or shivering while in a lukewarm bath, get out of the bath and get dressed in light clothing.
- Eat. There is no truth to the old saying “Feed a cold, starve a fever.” Food will supply your body with the energy it needs to speed healing. If you are feeling up to it, go ahead and eat. Avoid any foods that may cause nausea or vomiting and only eat foods that will settle your stomach and control hunger. Listen to your body and do not force yourself to eat. If you have no desire to eat, stick with liquids until your appetite returns to normal.
Infants and young children are at the greatest risk of complications from a fever. Contact your pediatrician immediately if your infant or child develops a fever greater than 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Other indications that you should contact your pediatrician include:
- Any fever in a child younger than 3 months old.
- An infant or child refuses to eat or drink.
- An infant or child is very irritable (excessive crying).
- An infant or child is extremely lethargic.
- An infant or child is unresponsive to normal stimulus.
Most fevers will run their course without any complications. Occasionally, complications can arise that may require additional treatment. They generally occur with very high fevers. When complications arise, it is important to seek medical attention immediately. Complications that may develop and require immediate medical attention include:
- Seizures (in children under 5)
For minor illnesses, a fever will generally disappear on its own within 2 to 4 days. Some viral illnesses can cause a fever to last for up to 7 days. Fevers that last for more than 3 days should always be checked by your physician.
Although over-the-counter medications work well to reduce fever, it is important to keep in mind that a fever is the body’s defense mechanism against illnesses. Most germs that cause illness thrive at a person’s normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Fever helps the body fight off the invading germ by elevating the body temperature in an attempt to kill off the infection. Many doctors recommend that fevers be allowed to run their course and not be treated with medications.
Treating a fever with medication can actually do more harm than good, as it can prolong the illness or make it difficult for the doctor to diagnose the underlying cause as a result of the temporary improvement in symptoms. Speak with your doctor about whether or not you should try to control your fever with over-the-counter medications.
An individual’s normal body temperature can fluctuate regularly throughout the course of the day. Generally, body temperature is lowest in the morning and early afternoon and highest in the evening.