Currently, everyone is worrying and thinking about viral illnesses and the immune system. Recently in “Contemporary Pediatrics,” Drs. Barton Schmitt and Paul Offit discuss how a fever helps the immune system.

When the body is invaded by a new germ (bacterial or viral), it starts with a fever. This fever ramps up the immune system that is necessary to fight infections. All warm-blooded animals get fevers when they have infections. Every aspect of our immune system works better at higher body temperatures.

In trying to determine the function of a fever, multiple species such as dogs, lizards, fish and mice were injected with germs and then some were given a fever suppressor. Those who had a fever suppressor had a higher death rate.

The same type of study has been done with humans, and it was found people with infections who are treated with fever-reducing medicines have symptoms that often are more severe and last longer than those who don’t take fever-reducing medicines.

These studies have been with infections of rhinovirus, influenzas, chicken pox and other respiratory infections, and all showed improved outcomes if the fever was not treated. To date, Schmitt and Offit have found no research that shows treating fever improved outcomes.

Another interesting fact is about a fever and vaccines. There have been two studies that measured antibodies after vaccines. Those individuals who were given a fever-reducer with the vaccine had a lower antibody response when measured one month later.

The human body has a thermostat in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus that keeps the fever in the optimal range for fighting infections. However, before we understood the benefits of a fever, a fever itself was associated with very serious infections and was felt to be the cause of the illness. This is how fever phobia began.

As our knowledge about the function of fever has been increased, we have changed our suggestions for treatment. These studies suggest it would be better to stop interfering with the body’s attempt to cure itself.

It is advised that it is not wise to treat all fevers with fever-reducers and certainly not with two or more different fever-reducers. It is helpful to keep patients well hydrated, so they can sweat and give off heat. Reducing fevers may make you feel better but delay your recovery.

In summary, there is evidence that a fever improves outcomes for infections and no evidence that a fever makes you sicker. We need to treat the infection, if possible, and not the fever.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.

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