Your child looks lethargic, he won’t eat, not thirsty, his body hurts. You feel his forehead and it’s hot. Ohhh no, not again. You grab the thermometer out of the cabinet, take his temperature and it’s 99.9 (or 102, or 104). Then comes that dreaded moment as a parent…What should you do next?!
- Immediately reach for the medicine cabinet for Motrin or Tylenol
- Call your pediatrician and schedule an appointment ASAP
- Rush your child to Urgent Care
- Let the fever run its course
In order to be able to answer that question for yourself, understanding how the body works and what a fever is, is a must.
What is a Normal Body Temperature?
Your body has this amazing, built-in mechanism of regulating your internal body temperature called thermoregulation. Just like you have a thermostat in your home that maintains a consistent temperature in your home, your body has one also.
Your body’s thermostat is controlled and regulated by the hypothalamus. It keeps your core body temperature fluctuating between 97 to 99 throughout the day¹. This is the temperature range in which your hypothalamus has determined your body’s core processes will function at their peak.
How Does the Immune System Work?
There is an entire branch of medicine and biology dedicated to the study of the immune system so I cannot underestimate the extreme complexity of how it works. But in order for us to understand it at the very basic level, I’ve broken it down into 5 steps that include the primary immune cells that our bodies use to fight pathogens: macrophages, neutrophils, dendritic cells, T-Cells and B-Cells.
Here’s how it works:
- An invader, typically bacteria or virus, enters the body (for this example let’s assume it is through the mouth or nose).
- Macrophages, Neutrophils and Dendritic Cells are the first line of defense and they recognize this invader and will usually destroy it without you ever knowing.
- If they cannot destroy the invader alone, they will summon for reinforcements. The Dendritic Cells take samples of the invaders back to the lymph nodes where they recruit the help of Helper T-Cells.
- Helper T-Cells do 3 things: 1) travel to the battlefield to help fight the invader 2) stay in the lymph nodes and become Memory T-Cells to provide future immunity 3) stay in the lymph nodes and activate B-Cells.
- B-Cells then produce antibodies that are engineered to attach to the invader and destroy them. These antibodies flood the bloodstream and destroy the invaders wherever they find them.
What is a Fever?
It just so happens that your immune cells have an improved capacity to surround and kill infectious agents when working at temperatures ranging from 100.4 – 104 F (Geddes L. 2020). This is only necessary if your body needs a little boost to fight off the invader. Your hypothalamus cranks up the thermostat (aka your core body temperature) to allow your immune cells to finish the job.
Here are a few statements from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Clinic Report on Fevers. I’m quoting the report directly as to not misquote them. (Source: Sullivan et al 2011)
- Fever is one of the most common clinical symptoms managed by pediatricians… for (an estimated) one-third of all presenting conditions in children.
- Fever is not an illness but is, in fact, a physiologic mechanism that has beneficial effects in fighting infection.
- There is no evidence that children with fever, as opposed to hyperthermia, are at increased risk of adverse outcomes such as brain damage.
- There is no evidence that reducing fever reduces morbidity or mortality from a febrile illness.
- Furthermore, at this time, there is no evidence that temperature reduction, in and of itself, should be the primary goal of antipyretic therapy.
- Finally, there is no evidence that antipyretic therapy decreases the recurrence of febrile seizures.
- When counseling a family on the management of fever in a child, pediatricians and other health care providers should minimize fever phobia and emphasize that antipyretic use does not prevent febrile seizures.
- Appropriate counseling on the management of fever begins by helping parents understand that fever, in and of itself, is not known to endanger a generally healthy child. In contrast, fever may actually be of benefit.
In essence, what the AAP is saying in this report is that fevers are actually beneficial in the fighting off of infections, fever reducing medications should be used with caution and consult with their doctor prior to use (approximately 50% of caregivers use them incorrectly).
How Should You Treat a Fever?
This is where all of your research and education comes into play. Your confidence in what you do as a parent will grow and grow the more you understand about fevers. Here is another one of my favorite sources: Seattle Children’s Hospital – Fever – Myths Versus Fact.
Fear is a powerful driver of our decisions in this situation. Being well-informed and educated on fevers will calm your anxiety. Starting with a basic understanding of the immune system, why the body raises it’s internal temperature, and reading what the medical literature says about fevers, will help ease a LOT of that fear for you.
If you are noticing that your baby or big kid is getting sick too often they may benefit from chiropractic care. Learn more about our pediatric program here.
Hope this helps!
Disclaimer: This blog post is for informational and educational purposes only. Always consult with your physician for personalized medical advice.
- “Body Temperature Norms: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001982.htm.
- Geddes L. (2020). The fever paradox. New scientist (1971), 246(3277), 39–41. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0262-4079(20)30731-4
- Sullivan, J. E., and H. C. Farrar. “Fever and Antipyretic Use in Children.” PEDIATRICS, vol. 127, no. 3, 2011, pp. 580–587., doi:10.1542/peds.2010-3852.