Here's what you need to know about the association between being stressed and having a fever.

By Maggie O'Neill
October 28, 2020
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Stress can take a huge toll on your body. It can interrupt your sleep pattern, take a toll on your digestive health, and even throw off your menstrual cycle.

Because of its wide-ranging effects on your wellbeing, it's understandable to question whether stress can also make you feel physically unwell and mimic the symptoms of an actual illness—like a fever. Fair warning: The research around stress and fevers—specifically a type of fever called "psychogenic fever"—is spotty; but here, experts attempt to explain the connection between a higher body temperature and stress, and whether or not minor or major stressors can cause fever.

Can stress cause fever?

First, let's be clear on what a "fever" even is: According to the US National Library of Medicine's MedlinePlus resource, "An adult probably has a fever when the temperature is above 99°F to 99.5°F (37.2°C to 37.5°C), depending on the time of day." While normal body temperature is thought to be around 98.6°F, a normal range, per MedlinePlus, is anywhere from 97°F to 99°F.

While a fever is a sign of an infection or other illness, there isn’t a substantial body of research that proves any association between stress and a rise in body temperature, Donald Ford, MD, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. “Stress can cause some physiologic changes [like] blushing, turning red,” Dr. Ford explains. “[But] that’s very superficial. It doesn’t alter the core body temperature."

Ramiro Jervis, MD, an internal medicine doctor at the Family Health Centers at NYU Langone, adds that he's "not aware of any studies that [show] stress itself can cause fever." He also tells Health that if a patient presents with a fever, their doctor is likeliest to look for causes other than stress, such as an infection.

But while stress itself might not be able to directly cause fever, it can still do some serious damage to your body—and that can indirectly result in a fever. Specifically, enduring stress for a prolonged period of time can weaken or alter your body’s immune system, Dr. Ford says. Having lower levels of stress hormones may protect you against illnesses, per MedlinePlus. (FYI: This is why exercise can help build your immunity: When you work out, it slows the release of stress hormones in the body.)

Alka Gupta, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, adds that stress "can depress your immunity, making you more vulnerable to viral—or other—infections," which, in turn, can cause a fever.

What about something called 'psychogenic fever'?

When you Google "Can stress cause a fever?" you're likely to read about something called a psychogenic fever, which is presumed to be just that: a fever as a result of stress. However, little research has been done on the topic of psychogenic fever, which isn't a widely accepted condition among doctors.

Most of the information out there on psychogenic fever comes from a 2015 article in the journal Temperature, which describes it as “a stress-related, psychosomatic disease especially seen in young women.” The author of the paper, Takakazu Oka, MD, explains that some people’s “high core body temperatures” could be a result of “psychological stress.” It's worth noting that "psychogenic" means rooted in a psychological origin, as opposed to a physical one.

“Some patients develop a high fever when they are exposed to emotional events, whereas others show a persistent low-grade fever lasting months and even years, either during or after situations of chronic stress,” Dr. Oka explains. He adds that for patients experiencing psychogenic fever, sometimes called neurogenic fever, “there is no abnormal finding to account for” their high body temperature, aside from stress. “Moreover, there are still physicians who do not recognize the fact that psychological stress can cause high” body temperature,” the paper says.

The paper admits that "the mechanism for psychogenic fever is not yet fully understood," but adds that studies conducted on animals have shown that psychological stress can raise the subjects' body temperatures. The author explains that some people, when exposed to"emotional events" can develop a fever of 105.8°F. However, others exposed to emotional events "show a persistent low-grade fever," which is categorized as anything from 98.6°F to 100.4°F.

Since stress hasn't been well-documented as an official cause of fever, you probably shouldn't chalk up a higher body temperature to stress of any kind. If you have a fever, consider setting up a telehealth appointment with your doctor to find out what's causing it. If you are experiencing other symptoms on top of fever, though, such as difficulty breathing, don't hesitate to go to the emergency room or an urgent care clinic.

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