According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, “in most cases, there’s no reason to fear a fever.” He explains at Mercola.com, writing:
I originally wrote this article 12 years ago. But the topic is so important that I wanted to publish an update spreading the word that, in most cases, there’s no reason to fear a fever. Reaching for fever-reducing medications right away is also typically counterproductive and may make it take longer for you to get better.1,2
Fever is a sign that your, or your child’s, immune system is working at its best. Virtually all animals — and even fish3 — naturally develop a fever when they’re fighting a bacterial or viral illness. This response occurs because it improves your body’s ability to get rid of infection.
Fever Benefits Your Body
When an organism invades your body, it triggers the release of pyrogen, a substance that signals your brain’s hypothalamus to raise your body’s temperature. This is done through a number of different mechanisms, including:
- Release of the hormone TRH
- Increasing your metabolic rate
- Restricting blood flow to the skin to minimize heat loss
- Piloerection (raising the small hairs), which suppresses sweating, a cooling mechanism
The fever, in turn, launches a number of beneficial body processes, including immune-protective mechanisms, that either directly or indirectly help ward off the invading bacteria or virus. For instance, temperatures from 104 to 105.8 degrees F (40 to 41 degrees C) reduce the replication rate of poliovirus in cells by 200-fold, while increasing the susceptibility of Gram-negative bacteria to antibody destruction.4
“Given the complexity of these immune mechanisms, it is remarkable that fever-range temperatures stimulate almost every step involved in this process, promoting both innate and adaptive immunity,” researchers wrote in Nature Reviews Immunology.5
“Febrile temperatures serve as a systemic alert system that broadly promotes immune surveillance during challenge by invading pathogens.”6 Some of these wide-reaching benefits include:
Increase in antibodies — cells trained to attack the exact type of invader that your body is suffering from More white blood cells are produced to help fight off the invading bugs More interferon, a natural antiviral and anticancer substance, is produced, which helps block the spread of viruses to healthy cells Walling off of iron, which bacteria feed on Increased temperature, which directly kills microbes (most bacteria and viruses grow better at temperatures lower than the human body) Improved ability of certain white blood cells to destroy bacteria and infected cells Fever also impairs the replication of many bacteria and viruses
Fever? Let It Ride
“The fever response is a hallmark of infection and inflammatory disease and has been shaped through hundreds of millions of years of natural selection,”7 yet many health care providers still consider it dangerous and worthy of treating because it causes discomfort.
Scientists also continue to debate fevers’ merits. One side favors the idea that fever should be suppressed because of its high metabolic costs. Every 1.8 degree F rise in body temperature requires a 10% to 12.5% increase in metabolic rate,8 which is significant.
This is one of the reasons why you frequently lose weight when you have a fever. However, increasing research supports the “let it ride” philosophy, which contends that fever is protective.9 Writing in the Journal of Thoracic Disease, researchers with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine described a classic 1975 study10 on fever and survival in iguanas infected with bacteria:11
“He gave them the opportunity to seek heat via sunlamps and all but one sought the warmth to raise their temperature. The one who did not was the only one who died. Next, he injected the iguanas with bacteria and gave them antipyretics [fever-reducing drugs]. The iguanas that were able to mount a fever despite the antipyretic were the only ones that survived.”
A 1987 study on rabbits also found that administering fever-reducing drugs caused more harm than good. The team found fever suppression in the animals “had a markedly deleterious effect on the course of infection, resulting in an increased content of infectious virus in the mesenteric lymph nodes, increased mortality, and retarded recovery in animals that survived the infection.”12
Similarly striking findings have been found in people, specifically critically ill patients in the intensive care unit. One group of patients was treated aggressively for fever, receiving acetaminophen every six hours if their temperature rose above 101.3 degrees F (38.5 degrees C).
The other group only received treatment if their fever reached 104 degrees F (40 degrees C), which consisted of acetaminophen and cooling blankets until their temperature went below 104 degrees F.
The study had to be stopped early because so many people in the aggressive treatment group died compared to the other group — seven deaths versus one, respectively. “Aggressively treating fever in critically ill patients may lead to a higher mortality rate,” the team concluded.13
Another study, this time on fish, showed allowing fever to run its course cleared infection in about half the time it took for animals without a fever to heal.14,15 In addition to rapidly clearing infection, fever helped control inflammation and repair tissue damage.
“We let nature do what nature does, and in this case, it was very much a positive thing,” study author and immunologist Daniel Barreda, with the University of Alberta, said in a news release.16 “Every animal examined has this biological response to infection,” she says, suggesting that fever provides a strong evolutionary survival advantage.
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