There is nothing like a high fever to send a parent into panic mode. They call it Fever Phobia and it is real. This phobia is often fueled by myths and misinformation in regards to fever and it’s relation to seizures and brain damage. Common cultural beliefs and practices as well as pharmaceutical advertising also plays a role in how Americans view fever.
There are essentially two schools of thought in regards to the treatment of fever. Get rid of it and Let it be. The “Get rid of it” school of thought tends to operate on the basis of either a. they believe the fever to be dangerous or b. to avoid suffering or of course c. both. The “Let it be” school of thought argues that fever is your body’s natural way of coping with infection and to inhibit that process may prolong or exacerbate the infection your body is attempting to fight.
I grew up in the “Get Rid of It” category and have recently subscribed to the “Let it Be” category all though it is sometimes easier in theory than in practice. I will explain my shift and the reasons why I changed my perception and also link to some information but first I must preface by saying I am not a doctor, have never and will never be one. I don’t practice medicine. I practice motherhood. I am not an expert and I don’t give expert advice. I share my motherhood opinions and experiences and mine are not somehow elevated above yours, I only share them for those who are interested. If you need a doctor, see a doctor.
I don’t remember my parents ever being panicked about fever but I’m sure like most American mothers that my own mother worried over our fevers. I do remember taking fever reducers, like most children. As an adult it was an automatic reaction for me. Got a fever? Take some tylenol. I preferred ibuprofen, much faster. Then off to work you go, can’t have any sick time after all. Working in a call center for 5 years, I can not tell you how many people showed up looking like death. Americans are very interesting people in that regard. We tend to have no sacredness in terms of our body and it’s fragility’s (or it’s awesome abilities). If it can’t manage on its own then by golly there’s got to be something I can take that will get me going. We take fever reducers for fevers, cold pills for colds, sleeping pills for sleeping, anti-anxiety meds for anxiety, etc, etc. In America we treat the symptoms.
A fever is not a problem, it is a symptom. It is a symptom that your body is fighting off an infection. Fever is the body’s natural response to any infection. Infections can thrive at our normal body temperature but as the temperature rises it makes it very difficult for the infection to thrive and thus gives the immune system the ability (and time) to fight off the infection (usually taking 3-5 days, also the duration of most fevers).
When we reduce a fever we are eliminating our bodies natural defense mechanism and make it harder on our immune system to fight off the infection. It can actually make the illness last much longer than it would have, had the fever been left to do its job. This is sometimes why parents who have been giving their children Tylenol for a few days believe their children to be better (after all they are running around and eating like normal) and so they send them off to school or preschool only to have the child return home that afternoon, after the medication has worn off and the fever has been given enough time to rise again, just as sick (or sicker) than they were before. That is because fever reducers never take away the illness and they don’t make it go away faster either, they simply mask it. They trick your body into believing it is better.
This itself (the tricking of the body) can extend the illness. Take a moment and think about it. When you have a fever you generally feel awful. You don’t want to eat. You don’t want to walk around. The only thing you want to do is lay down and rest. It is your bodies way of telling you to slow down. It allows your body to conserve it’s energy into healing and not to be distracted with physical exertion or even digestion. Our bodies are intelligent. They were designed that way. When we circumvent that design it can have negative effects. People tend to run themselves ragged on fever reducers because they are cutting off their bodies messenger system and they do activities they never would have considered because they feel better, when in fact they are still just as sick (if not more) as before.
To see the effect in action you need only to watch your own child. In small children the change seems much more dramatic. My husband and I had to giggle after we gave our daughter a dose of ibuprofen. She had been a very sad looking thing with a high fever of 103. She was only content to lay on the couch and watch cartoons and sip water and apple juice. She wasn’t very interested in holding conversations and snapped at us when she did. Within 10 minutes of her ibuprofen she began chatting. At 20 minutes she sat up and was giggling and being silly and making jokes. At 30 minutes she was up off the couch and looking for a game to play. At 45 minutes she was literally running circles and trying to play chase with us. We had to beg her to sit down and not run and countless reminders that she was still sick fell on deaf ears. I’m sick? I feel fine. Let’s party!
Most parents once presented with the information that a fever is actually a good thing intuitively trust this knowledge. It makes sense, it is logical. What most people struggle with is the concept of comfort and the opposite of that, suffering.
No one (certainly not anyone reading this blog) wants to see their child suffer or to be in discomfort. We spend each and every day helping our children to avoid such situations. So when it comes to the idea of leaving a fever to act on it’s own, resulting in suffering, it can be very counter-intuitive. Part of this is simply our protective nature as a parent and even the common denominator of being a human and having empathy. However, I believe a large part of this is cultural and generational. We live in a world/culture/society that constantly sends us the message that we must never be upset, in pain, or to do without. If we are without we should have what we desire immediately. There is no such thing as waiting. We are told to live for the here and now. We must always have answers and if we don’t have the answers someone else must have the answer and they must share it with us. If it can be thought of, it can be done. If you can’t do it now we will find someone who can.
We may believe that we don’t fall prey to these notions but they are very ingrained. To activate this cultural/societal tendency simply mention to a general audience that you do not medicate a fever or cold, or suggest that you are planning on a natural birth. Suddenly you are masochistic, a sadist, or if it is in relation to your child you are negligent and cruel. It is very hard for people to conceive of pain and suffering as a matter of life. A matter of experience. A matter of fact. To go into this topic in depth could result in a novel and I’m sure they all ready exist. It isn’t my point. My point is that inevitably all humans will suffer and that not all suffering is bad. Not all suffering is cruel. In some ways to suffer is to know you are human.
Can it be taken too far? Yes, of course. Are there times a fever should be medicated. Yes, I believe so. In my own short lived “Let it be” experience I medicate a fever if my child is overly miserable and natural attempts (a lukewarm bath, less clothing, more clothing, a cool washcloth, a back rub, snuggling, etc) doesn’t help. I also medicate a fever if my child is unable to get any sleep. Sleep is very important when you’re ill. My own child will not sleep on her own when she is ill and both my husband and I are perfectly comfortable in allowing her to sleep with us when she needs it. In her most recent illness on night 4 we chose to medicate her fever because it had been wearing on her for 4 days and she had a rough time sleeping on the 4th night. The medication allowed her to get the deep sleep that her body needed.
Being a parent is about making judgement calls. Use your own judgement. Reduce a fever if you feel your child needs the comfort, however don’t reduce a fever just for the sake of reducing a fever unless your child has other underlying medical reasons that require it.
Most of the time a fever, in and of itself, is harmless. There are always exceptions. You need to know the signs to look for and be willing to contact medical help (the ER, your doctor, etc) when necessary.
A fever in a very young infant is always a cause for concern. A child who displays the following symptoms warrants a call to the doctor. The following (text in italics) is copied from Dr. Sears website. Treatment measures refer to giving the child acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin).
It is also important to know that if you give your child fever reducers and they are still acting seriously ill then it is important for you to contact your doctor. For example, no amount of fever reducer (trust me, I’ve had it) will get a person with pneumonia to feel better. However, a minor illness with a high fever, can be almost completely alleviated (symptom wise) with a fever reducer. It isn’t necessarily how high the fever is that you should be concerned about but with the child’s behavior when the fever is reduced. If you can’t reduce the fever (and you are trying) you need to seek medical help.
And lastly, all though admittedly the risk is probably very small, there is the possibility that these common medications are not as safe for our children (or ourselves) as we now view them to be. For example, in 2007 cold medicine was recalled for children ages 2 and under because of possible life threatening side effects. It is the reality of the situation that we sometimes don’t learn about very dangerous side effects from various drugs, both prescription and non-prescription, until after the fact. In my own situation, I sometimes wonder if my daughter’s exposure to numerous doses of infant tylenol while her immune system was still very immature has anything to do with the dye sensitivity that she now displays. It obviously can not be the only factor since millions of children consume the red dyed tylenol and not all of those children experience sensitivities to dye. But it has made me wonder if there is any connection at all. For those concerned, both Tylenol and Motrin offer dye free versions of their fever reducers. All though you may have to call a few stores to find it.
All in all, I am choosing to adopt the “Let it Be” attitude when it comes to fever. I don’t refuse fever reducing medications without exception but I do greatly consider the pro’s and con’s before choosing to circumvent the bodies natural coping mechanism. Like many other positions that I hold when it comes to medicine it is that modern medicine is a tremendous blessing when used with judgement and discernment and can sometimes be nothing short of a miracle but not all things modern in medicine equates to good medicine.
*Natural comforting methods NOT to use with a fever. The following comfort/treatment methods have been passed down and are NOT recommended to be used:
-A cold bath or a very hot bath. Use lukewarm water.
-Using rubbing alcohol on the skin
-Over bundling or underdressing. As a general rule of thumb keep the child comfortable. If the child is cold give the child a blanket. If hot, dress lightly. Do not make the child to shiver or to purposefully sweat.
-Forcing the child to eat against his/her will. Refusing the child food against his/her will. (If you’re worried about what he/she can tolerate try bland toast or crackers first). For sensitive tummies consider the B.R.A.T. diet (bananas, rice, applesauce & toast).
**Natural ways to comfort your child during a fever:
-Plenty of rest and lots of fluids
-Lots of attention and affection, cuddling, back-rubs, singing etc.
-A lukewarm bath
-A cool washcloth on the head
-Quiet activities such as reading to your child, doing a puzzle, watching a movie/television, drawing, etc
-Homeopathic remedies (I’ll let you research these on your own)
-If nursing, allow your child to nurse on demand. This may be more often than normal during an illness. Many babies/toddlers nurse a lot for comfort when ill.
-Anything else that brings your child comfort and creates a calm environment
LINKS REGARDING FEVER:
* Dr Reynolds: Myths & Facts about Fever
* Dr Jay Gordon: Dealing With Fever
* Dr Bob Sears: Fever
* Dr Jeffrey Snedecker: Childhood Fever – Friend or Foe?
* Think Like A Doctor: Is Tylenol A Good Thing?