A fever is the body’s reaction to infection or illnesses, both minor and severe. This response is normal and healthy and is the body’s way of fighting infection. When a fever is present, it’s important to remember that fever is a symptom, not an actual illness, and symptoms of an illness can provide clues about the cause, and how the illness should be treated.
An average body temperature for most people is 98.6°F when measured with an oral thermometer. It’s normal for body temperature to be lower upon waking in the morning, and a bit higher in the afternoon. Other things like exercise, wearing too many clothes, or being exposed to extra ambient heat can cause body temperature to rise.
The degree of fever is not an indicator of the severity of an illness; even minor ailments can be accompanied by a high fever, and fever is not always present in serious illnesses. It’s common for children to run a higher fever than adults.
A fever typically causes you to feel tired, have little or no energy, and suffer from a loss of appetite. Other symptoms like chills, shivering, muscle aches, headache, and sweating may also accompany a fever. These symptoms may worsen with a high fever, and while a high fever is sometimes uncomfortable, it’s usually not serious.
Fever commonly accompanies illnesses like colds, flu, viral infections, and bacterial infections. A recurrent fever is one that occurs three or more times within a period of six months, with each fever being more than seven days apart. Frequent or recurrent fevers could be a sign of a more serious problem and should be addressed by a doctor.
Treating a Fever
Over-the-counter medicines containing acetaminophen (Tylenol, for example) or ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) work well to reduce fever. These medicines don’t cure infections, but they can reduce the symptoms of the fever and make you feel better.
It’s important – especially in children – to drink plenty of fluids when running a fever in order to prevent dehydration.
When to See a Doctor
You should seek medical attention if any of these conditions exist:
- A fever of 103°F or above
- Fever lasts for more than seven days
- Fever symptoms worsen or don’t improve with over-the-counter fever reducers
If any of these symptoms are present with a fever, you should seek medical attention right away:
- Stiff neck
- Severe headache
- Confusion or excessive sleepiness
- Chest pain
- Breathing difficulty
- Abdominal pain
- Bloody stool
- Pain with urination
- Swelling in areas of the skin, especially in the legs
With children, you should seek medical care if any of the following apply:
- The child is younger than six months in age
- Fever can’t be controlled
- Symptoms of dehydration are present (sunken eyes, dry diapers, no tears)
- The child has been seen by a doctor, but symptoms continue to worsen
In severe cases, medical attention should be sought immediately. These are:
- You suspect your child is dehydrated
- Presence of a purple or red rash
- Change in consciousness
- Persistent vomiting
- A child is younger than two months in age
- A headache that will not go away
Fever is the body’s way of protecting itself and “sounding the alarm” when something is wrong. The presence of fever when the body experiences an illness or infection is a healthy sign, but understanding fever can help you remain alert to any serious conditions.
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