Fever and the Body’s Natural Healing Response

by Nicole Pierce, ND

When I come into work, I’m always delighted to see kids and babies on my schedule. Not only do I love goofing around with kids and cuddling babies, I know that their little bodies are always trying to achieve balance and optimal health. Of course, whenever kids appear in doctor’s offices, they do so with their distressed parents, and my job is to calm their fears while encouraging their little ones’ own healing response. When a child is sick, it is a parents’ immediate response to want to alleviate their pain and suffering, but in the case of fever, those interventions may be counterproductive. A child’s ability to generate a fever is an eloquent demonstration of the body’s innate self-healing potential. And as a naturopathic physician, it’s my job to explain to the parents about this amazing process and to encourage them to let it occur in their child’s best interest. During a fever, the immune system is responding to infection by increasing the body temperature to aid in the following processes:

  • Manufacturing additional white blood cells which destroy bacteria and viruses and also remove damaged tissue and irritating materials from the body.
  • Increasing white blood cell activity as they move rapidly to the site of infection.
  • Increasing antibody production by as much as 20 fold.
  • Conserving energy for natural defense and repair by causing sleepiness and decreased appetite.
  • Removing iron from the blood to be stored in the liver, decreasing the supply for the bacteria which need iron for survival.

Suppressing this process by bringing down the fever may interfere with healing and prolong the infection. Here are some facts that I hope can lighten parents’ fears and give them the confidence to support their child during a productive fever.

  • Fever is part of the body’s normal response to infection. Fever is a symptom, NOT a disease.
  • It is normal for a child may be lethargic or flushed, may have a rapid and strong heartbeat, and may even hallucinate during a fever.
  • Fevers generated in the course of an illness are not in and of themselves dangerous. The underlying cause of the fever and how sick your child looks are more important than the number on the thermometer. Above all else, how your child looks and acts determines the likelihood of a serious problem.
  • Fevers caused by infection will not rise above 106° and do not cause harm (Dr. Robert Mendelsohn, MD). The underlying cause of the fever and dehydration from inadequate fluid consumption are the main sources of any potential problems.
  • Fevers of 107° or 108° degrees can cause brain damage and usually result from heat stroke or accidental poisoning. Routine infections do not produce fevers of this degree.
  • It is normal for one out of twenty healthy children under the age of five to have a fever convulsion. These seizures are caused by the speed of the temperature rise, not the fever itself, and are rarely serious. They usually last only a few minutes and produce no lasting or harmful effects.

Management and Support of Fever

Most fevers do not require any medical attention, but parents can support their child’s immune system and speed recovery in the following ways:

  • Feed lightly with broth, pureed vegetables and cooked fruits. Follow the child’s lead and allow him to choose what he wants to eat and when… from the healthy choices you provide, of course!
  • Encourage the consumption of plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. A good rule of thumb is to give 4 ounces per hour in young children and 8 ounces per hour in older ones. Water, broth, teas, and dilute juices are preferable, and natural juice popsicles are always a hit with children.
  • Rest is best when a child’s body is busy fighting an infection. But, despite a high temperature, your child might still be running around and seem normal. This is fine too, just encourage quiet activities and as much rest as possible.
  • Concentrate on keeping your child comfortable in the most natural way possible. When he feels warm, apply a cold compress. Cover him when he shivers.

Treatments and Remedies

Any remedies should aim to ease discomfort from the fever’s symptoms, not to suppress the infection-fighting process. Do not attempt to bring the fever down below 102° unless the child is extremely uncomfortable and cannot sleep. The ideal infection fighting temperature is 102°-103.5°.

Hydrotherapy:

  • Use a tepid or lukewarm bath or sponge bath. A common mistake is using water which is too cold, which will cause shivering and in turn raise the temperature. Another mistake is to use rubbing alcohol, which is no more effective than tepid water and gives off irritating fumes.
  • Warming socks at bedtime is an amazing old naturopathic remedy.

Homeopathy:

  • An appropriately chosen homeopathic remedy can be a mild and unobtrusive way of dealing with fever and can make your child comfortable while letting the fever run its course. The naturopathic physicians at Boise Natural Health can recommend a remedy and/or an excellent reference book and homeopathic kit to keep at home.
  • Homeopathic cell salts are easy to administer and are an effective way to support the natural healing response.

Supplements:

  • Vitamin C, Echinacea and other herbal formulas prescribed at BNH can help your child’s body fend off any virus that may be causing the fever.

Over the Counter Medicine:

  • Use only as a last resort if your child is extremely uncomfortable. Ibuprofen is the safest, but use cautiously as it can irritate the stomach. Avoid Tylenol
  • (Acetaminophen) and Aspirin which are commonly linked to liver damage and Reye’s Syndrome, respectively.

See your doctor immediately or report to the emergency room if the child:

  • Is younger than 3 months old.
  • Has a fever above 106° Fahrenheit.
  • Has repeated febrile convulsions, or a convulsion lasting more than 10 minutes.
  • Exhibits repeated vomiting, severe headache, stiff neck, extreme lethargy or unresponsiveness.
  • Cries constantly, seems inconsolable or if cries are weak or unusual.
  • Is difficult to arouse, has a vacant stare, or is in a state of delirium.
  • Acts as though it hurts to move or to be moved.
  • Has a stiff neck or persistent pain in joints.
  • Has small bruises or purple spots on skin.
  • Is drooling or has difficulty breathing that is not due to a stuffy nose.
  • Has a chronic medical condition such as diabetes or severe asthma.
  • Was exposed to a serious illness such as meningitis.
  • Looks or acts very sick, and your intuition tells you that you should seek professional advice.

Call your doctor for advice if your child has a fever and:

  • The fever has lasted longer than 72 hours, or more than 24 hours without an obvious cause.
  • The fever cleared for 24 hours and then returned.
  • The fever is associated with a red rash, painful urination, vomiting or diarrhea, or a persistent or severe sore throat.
  • The child has an inability to drink, lack of thirst, a dry mouth, dark urine or decreased amount of urine.

Febrile Seizures

A febrile seizure can occur if a fever rises rapidly (see above). Try to remain calm and position your child slightly to the side so that mucus or saliva can safely drain from his mouth. After the seizure is complete, call your doctor for further instruction. Such episodes usually last less than 5 minutes and, though scary for most parents, are no cause for alarm. If the seizure does not stop within 10 minutes, call 911.