Sweating Out a Fever and Other Common Fever Myths, Dispelled

Photo Courtesy: [Boris Zhitkov/Moment/Getty Images]

A fever, also called pyrexia or a raised body temperature, is a common symptom of infection. A person’s body temperature increases when their immune system is attempting to kill a pathogen (such as a virus or bacteria) that’s causing the infection.

Fevers are uncomfortable experiences, so seeking out ways to experience relief is understandable. However, it’s important to be aware of healthcare myths that can do more harm than good. From treatments to side effects, there’s inaccurate information available about how to handle a fever. Here are a few myths that have been debunked, along with information on how to safely manage a fever.

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

This is a common fever belief that’s also a misguided one. The increase in internal body temperature is what actually 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 to helping your fever pass.

Your focus during a fever should be on making yourself or the affected person more comfortable. As your body raises its temperature, you sometimes may feel chills. Using a fever-reducing medicine such as acetaminophen can help. Blankets are fine in most cases if they make you more comfortable, but too much heat can end up raising the fever.

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

During a fever, your body is doing the following:

  • Slowing down bacteria and viruses
  • Boosting white blood cell counts

 Thus, a fever isn’t always something that needs immediate curing. Leaving a fever alone (when no other symptoms are present) can help your body fight off infection naturally.  However, taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen and drinking plenty of fluids can also help.

Myth: Anything above 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit is a fever.

Experts note that 98.6 degrees is our average body temperature. However, some people may have slightly lower or higher normal body temperatures; children are generally higher, while older adults are generally lower.

Furthermore, a healthy person’s temperature can vary by a full degree over the course of the day and can vary based on conditions, such as just after a bath or after being covered in blankets. 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 common method of using the back of your hand pressed to a person’s forehead isn’t a proper way of diagnosing a fever. Children are not only naturally warmer, but they may also give off heat just from playing or sleeping in a warm bed. This technique only gives you a measure of skin temperature, rather than someone’s internal temperature.

It’s even possible to misjudge whether a child has a fever when using a thermometer, as the type of thermometer is important to consider. Some thermometers are more accurate than others and arrer better for certain age groups. Follow these guidelines for detecting a fever:

  • Oral thermometer:
  • Armpit thermometer:
  • Rectal thermometer:

Keep in mind that armpit thermometers aren’t as accurate as rectal or oral thermometers. Avoid using mercury thermometers at all due to safety concerns.

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

 You may have heard 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, heat stroke or a severe reaction to general anesthesia.

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

There are a couple of problems with using ice baths to lower fevers. First, the effect is only temporary; the fever may lower while in the bath, but it’ll likely return to its previous state afterward. Second, an ice bath may lower your body’s temperature too quickly and cause shivering that ultimately leads to a higher body temperature. To ease discomfort, it’s better to take a lukewarm bath or use a washcloth dipped in lukewarm water.

When a Fever Requires Immediate Medical Attention

For any child under 3 or 4 months of age with a fever of 100.4 degrees F or more, it’s important to contact their healthcare provider right away. In adults, any fever over 104 degrees F should be treated immediately. Additionally, the following symptoms require immediate medical attention when accompanying a fever:

  • Skin rash that is visibly worsening
  • Severe headache
  • Vomiting
  • Neck stiffness that worsens when the head is bent forward
  • Confusion
  • Chest pain or changes in breathing patterns
  • Seizure or convulsions

Sometimes the cause of a fever is clear, and the best way to treat the symptom is by getting rest, drinking plenty of water and taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen to manage discomfort. If you or a loved one has a fever and is displaying any of the symptoms listed above (particularly rashes or an altered mental status), seek medical attention right away.

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

If you’re caring for someone with a fever, your approach 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, a fever is considered an emergency requiring immediate medical attention. Likewise, while a younger and healthier individual might ride out a fever of 104 degrees F when they have the flu, an older person might be better off being seen by a healthcare provider sooner rather than later.

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