How To Break a Fever

A fever is usually a sign that your body is fighting an infection. Learn how to treat the discomfort, and find out when to see a healthcare provider.

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A fever is an increase in normal body temperature. An average body temperature can differ with each person and vary depending on certain factors, but it is typically between 97.5 to 98.9 degrees. The temperature for a fever is 100.4 degrees or higher, according to Johns Hopkins.

A fever is not a disease on its own, but it's usually a symptom of an infection or illness that your body is trying to fight off, according to MedlinePlus. Bacteria and viruses tend to thrive when the body is at its normal temperature. Thus, a fever can help fight an infection by making it harder for those germs to survive. Fevers also activate your body's immune system.

But a fever can also be uncomfortable. According to Johns Hopkins, when a person has a fever, they may also experience:

  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Body aches
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea

If you or someone you're taking care of has a fever, learn how to treat their symptoms at home and how to determine when you should seek advice from a healthcare provider.

What Causes a Fever?

Typically when a fever occurs, the body is fighting an infection. This can include bone infections, respiratory infections, or urinary tract infections. But, a fever can be caused by any infection, according to MedlinePlus.

Besides infections, fevers can also be caused by autoimmune diseases such as arthritis (inflammation of the joints), ulcerative colitis (inflammation of the digestive tract), or vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels), according to MedlinePlus. Certain medications such as antibiotics, antihistamines, or seizure medications can also cause fevers. A fever is oftentimes the first symptom of cancer, particularly leukemia and lymphoma.

How To Break a Fever

If you find yourself with a fever, or caring for someone who does, there are a few ways to break a fever. These methods include:

  • Avoiding dehydration
  • Eating when you feel comfortable
  • Staying cool
  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Taking a fever reducer

Stay Hydrated

Dehydration is a major side effect of fevers, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. If you are dehydrated, you may experience:

  • Light-headedness
  • Thirst
  • Decreased urination
  • Fatigue
  • Dry mouth and/or skin

"Fever will dehydrate you, and you have to replace what you have lost," said Gustavo Ferrer, MD, a pulmonologist and founder of the Cleveland Clinic Florida Cough Clinic in Aventura, Florida.

The treatment for dehydration is to drink plenty of fluids, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Sports drinks give your body the necessary electrolytes to feel hydrated again. If the dehydration is more severe, you may need intravenous fluids.

Of note, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that younger children should not consume a lot of fruit juice (including apple juice) or consume any sports drinks. Additionally, dietary recommendations for children can vary, so discuss your options with a healthcare provider.

Don't Eat if It Bothers You

When your body is feverish due to an infection of some sort, you may also have an upset stomach or nausea, not to mention a lack of appetite, according to Johns Hopkins.

It can be hard to keep food down or simply be unappealing to eat, Dr. Ferrer said, so "never force anybody to eat."

However, if you do find that you want to eat and are able to do so, opt for choices such as soup or gelatin, which can also help you stay hydrated.

Stay Comfortably Cool

There's no evidence that layering on blankets "and trying to sweat out the fever" has any benefit, Dr. Ferrer said. Instead, you'll probably feel better if you stay cool.

Take a lukewarm shower or bath, or apply cool compresses to the neck, armpits, or forehead, according to MedlinePlus. Additionally, refrain from bundling up if you have the chills or covering up with excess clothing and blankets.

These methods won't treat the underlying cause of the fever—but they can help ease some discomfort. Avoid taking ice-cold baths since this can cause shivering, which will increase the body temperature, as is the case with alcohol rubs.

Get Plenty of Rest

When you have a fever, your immune system is working overtime to battle whatever infection or disease is making you ill. Getting enough rest is important to bouncing back from a fever.

According to this 2019 study in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, sleep boosts immune system function. The study suggests that, in particular, sleep helps the body's infection-fighting T cells work more efficiently. Get plenty of sleep, and your body will do the rest.

Take a Fever Reducer

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) are the go-to medicines for reducing fever in adults and children, per MedlinePlus. Aspirin is also an effective treatment in adults but should never be given to children or teenagers, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Aspirin has been linked to a rare but serious condition called Reye's syndrome that can affect the liver and brain in children.

Another reminder for caregivers: Make sure to administer the correct dosage based on your child's age and weight, according to the AAP. And be aware that acetaminophen may also be included in many over-the-counter medications taken to relieve cold and flu symptoms. You don't want to take too much, Dr. Ferrer warned, because it "continues to be one of the most common reasons for liver failure."

When To Consult a Healthcare Provider: Infants

For infants 12 weeks of age and younger, the AAP advises caregivers to call a healthcare provider any time the baby's fever is 100.4 degrees or higher. Children under 12 months of age, especially infants 6 months or younger, are extremely vulnerable when they have a fever because they can become dehydrated quickly, Dr. Ferrer explained.

When To Consult a Healthcare Provider: Children

The AAP also advises calling a healthcare provider for any fever that rises above 104 degrees repeatedly in a child of any age. You should consult a healthcare provider if your child has a fever, along with any of the following symptoms:

  • Unusual drowsiness
  • Fussiness
  • Stiff neck
  • Severe headache
  • Sore throat
  • Ear pain
  • Unexplained rash
  • Repeated vomiting or diarrhea

Your child may overall appear increasingly ill.

A fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child younger than 2 years old—or three days in an older child—are additional reasons to call a healthcare provider, according to the AAP.

Seizures are another concern when young children have fevers. Children (especially those who are 6 months to 5 years old) can experience febrile seizures, a type of seizure that typically occurs within the first 24 hours of a fever, according to MedlinePlus. The AAP advises caregivers to call a healthcare provider when a child has a fever and a seizure.

When To Consult a Healthcare Provider: Adults

Adults should contact a healthcare provider when their fever stays at or keeps rising above 103 degrees, according to MedlinePlus. If the fever keeps climbing with no sign of coming down, it is important to seek medical care. "If you have a temperature that is going beyond 103 or 104 and it's persistent, this is the time that you've got to consider seeing the doctor," Dr. Ferrer said.

According to MedlinePlus, adults should also seek medical care if they have:

  • Fevers that come and go for up to 1 week (or more)
  • A fever that lasts more than 48–72 hours
  • A new rash or bruise
  • Recently traveled to another country
  • A weakened immune system or a serious medical illness

Because many things can cause a fever—certain medications, heat, illness, cancer, autoimmune diseases—Dr. Ferrer said people should note the symptoms accompanying their fever to get an accurate diagnosis.

Burning with urination in addition to a fever, for example, may be a sign of a urinary tract infection, while coughing and sore throat that accompany fevers could be the flu, according to MedlinePlus.

When To Seek Emergency Care

Head directly to the emergency room when a fever is accompanied by shortness of breath or coughing up blood, Dr. Ferrer said. Shortness of breath is an early sign of respiratory failure and should be taken very seriously, Dr. Ferrer added. According to MedlinePlus, additional symptoms that warrant a trip to the emergency room include stiff neck, inability to walk, headache, and confusion.

Other symptoms accompanying fever in children that warrant seeking emergency care include:

  • Crying and cannot be consoled or calmed
  • Blue lips, tongue, or nails
  • Refusal to move arms or legs

Also, fever-induced seizure in children that doesn't stop after five minutes should be treated as an emergency. The AAP advises to call 911 right away if this is the child's first seizure or if the child becomes injured, has trouble breathing, or is not waking up after a seizure.

Overall, fevers signify your body is fighting an infection or illness. If you or someone you are caring for has mild symptoms, rest and drink plenty of fluids. It's important to monitor symptoms and know when to seek advice from a healthcare provider.

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