Plus, what to do if you've had a low grade fever for a few days.

By Maggie O'Neill
October 28, 2020
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Chances are, the COVID-19 pandemic has you wary of every body temperature change you notice—whether that’s experiencing cold sweats or feeling a little warmer than usual.

It's with good reason, of course: fever is a symptom of the coronavirus, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s also a symptom of the flu, which usually starts circulating in the US during this time of year.

But not all fevers are created equal. While the most severe ones happen above 103 degrees Fahrenheit and may warrant medical attention, others, like what some experts call "low-grade fevers" can be a bit harder to identify. Here's what you need to know if your temperature is reading a little higher than usual.

What is a low-grade fever?

First, let’s define what a fever is: Per the CDC, a person has a fever if their temperature is at or above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). And though it doesn't necessary feel good, a fever can be a positive clue to your health: It's actually a sign that your body is working to fight off an illness or infection, and working to get you healthy again.

For most people, a “normal” body temperature falls somewhere around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, according to MedlinePlus, a resource from the US National Library of Medicine. However, not everyone’s body temperature is exactly 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and a normal range can be defined as from 97 degrees Fahrenheit to 99 degrees Fahrenheit.

But the definition of “low-grade” fever isn’t as clear cut as a normal body temperature or fever. “Low-grade fever doesn’t have a real medical definition,” Donald Ford, MD, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health.

Alka Gupta, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine adds that “there is no widely accepted range for low-grade fever." Dr. Gupta tells Health she’s seen low-grade fever categorized as anything between 99 degrees Fahrenheit to 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, while make the window a little smaller, from 100 degrees Fahrenheit to 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

In general, since a normal body temperature might fall anywhere from 97 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit, and a “fever” is technically anything 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, a “low-grade fever” could be defined as anything in that space between a normal temperature and a fever.

What can cause a low-grade fever?

While it might be tempting to think of a low grade fever as a lesser infection—than one, for instance, that caused a high fever—that's not really accurate. Both colds and the flu can cause fevers, along with a host of other issues, and the severity of a fever isn't dependent on the severity of an infection.

The reasoning? Because normal body temperature varies so much from person to person, so do fever temperatures. If a person's normal body temperature is typically lower, the jump of their fever temperature may also be lower, possibly only registering as a low-grade fever.

Older people may also be more susceptible to low-grade fevers than young adults and children, Ramiro Jervis, MD, an internal medicine doctor at the Family Health Centers at NYU Langone, tells Health. So, the older you get, the less likely you may be to suffer from a true fever. That's because sometimes normal body temperature—and, ultimately, fevered body temperature—can drop with age.

What should I do if I have a low-grade fever?

For starters, the only true way to know if you have a fever—low-grade or otherwise—is to take your temperature, so that's your first step. “It’s helpful [for a doctor] to have an actual reading,” Dr. Jervis says. The reality is that, if you tell your doctor you “think” you’ve had a fever for a few days, but you don’t have a number or range to back up that claim, that info won’t really tell your doctor much about your health.

You shouldn’t just take your temperature once and quit. Instead, take it regularly if you feel like something’s off. “Check it periodically,” Dr. Gupta says. This is helpful because your body temperature fluctuates throughout the day—and a woman’s fluctuates throughout her menstrual cycle—and knowing whether or not your temperature is consistently high, versus just higher at certain points in the day, will help your doctor get to the bottom of what, if anything, is wrong.

Lastly, don’t rush to the doctor if you have a fever, low-grade or not, and no other symptoms, without calling ahead to see what your doctor thinks you should do, Dr. Jervis advises. If fever is the only symptom you have, you and your doctor might be able to work out a treatment plan via a telehealth appointment, which saves you a trip to the doctor and potential exposure to COVID-19 and the flu. That said, if you are experiencing more severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, in addition to a fever spike, you shouldn’t hesitate to visit an emergency room or urgent care clinic.

The good news is that there are various ways to bring your temperature back down if it spikes. For instance, staying hydrated can help your body regulate its temperature, Dr. Ford says. Taking medications with anti-inflammatory properties, such as ibuprofen, can also help, as can cooling off if you’re in an especially hot environment, Dr. Ford says.

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