Fevers are More Important than People Think
All people should be aware of the basic function of a fever before trying to kill it. It may be uncomfortable but it could save your life! In any case, there is a balance to have in handling them. This includes excerpts from Dr. David Williams, one of our favorite sources.
Fever is often the first sign that you’re coming down with something. There’s very little debate or doubt that fever is one of our body’s primary tools for dealing with infectious diseases. Thirty years ago, this was common knowledge and, up until the late 1930s, there was even a great deal of research showing the benefits of artificially induced fevers.
In 1927, Dr. Julius Wagner-Jauregg received the Nobel Prize for medicine by showing he could cure fatal syphilis by injecting the patient with malaria and inducing a fever. A whole new field of “pyrotherapy” was evolving. Special heat cabinets (like miniature heavy-duty saunas … the hypertherm), electric blankets, electric current apparatus, and hot baths were being used widely to successfully treat all kinds of infectious diseases. Five hours in one of the heat cabinets could bring syphilis under control, and a series of 50 hours could cure it.
Back then, they figured if you could raise the body temperature to around 41 degrees C (105.8 degrees F), you could kill most pathogens. The same treatment was used for gonorrhea. Reports indicated that 99.9% of infectious gonococci organisms were killed at a temperature of 105.8 degrees in 4 to 5 hours.
Now, we’re not advocating this type of pyrotherapy. When you read about those who sat in the Kettering hypertherm cabinets, it doesn’t sound like too much fun. Heat spells in Texas actually start to sound pleasant. Even Phoenix sounds tolerable.
Helpful Benefits – with Caution!
However, caution is needed because, at body temperatures over 107 degrees, the brain could be “poached” and prove fatal. The patient’s head was the only thing sticking out of these cabinets. A blowing fan, cold sponges to the head, and chewing on ice helped, but the top of the box had to be locked down because patients would either panic or become angry and try to escape. It is no wonder that, when antibiotics became available, pyrotherapy quickly fell out of favor and was relegated to the pages of medical history books.
Over the last 25 or 30 years, the benefits and necessity of fever have largely been either ignored or forgotten. People now look at fever as something that is harmful and needs to be treated. Nowadays, we’re conditioned to take antipyretics (anti-fever medications) like aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen at the first sign of fever or other cold or flu symptoms.
The practice is based more on comfort than science. If the fever makes you feel uncomfortable, medication has become the answer. The basic rule of thumb often used is that any oral temperature over 100 degrees F is considered “fever”. A high fever is considered 104 degrees or higher (oral, ear, or rectal readings), and 103 degrees or higher for axillary (underarm). The common fear that if a fever gets too high, it can cause febrile convulsions and brain damage, but research shows these fears are overblown! Convulsions are actually triggered by a rapid rise in temperature, which wouldn’t be prevented by antipyretics, and they almost never cause any lasting harm.
In addition, there is no medical evidence that fevers from infections cause brain damage. The body limits infectious fevers from going above 106 degrees. Children tend to run higher fevers than adults and, if they don’t have other symptoms, the fever will go away in 3 or 4 days at most.
Just like in adults, the fever is a sign the immune system is fighting pathogens. There will naturally be a decrease in appetite, less energy, and the need for more rest and fluids.
Fighting Fevers Can Hinder Recovery
So, if fevers fight pathogen infections, why fight the fevers? Well, gradually, among physicians, the pendulum is starting to swing back to the idea that letting fevers run their course is best for the patient.
Surprisingly, not a lot of controlled research has been performed in this area. The observations that have been published, however, indicate that using antipyretics only hinder the body’s efforts at clearing the pathogen and recovery.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Miami directly compared the effects of aggressively treating a group of infected patients with antipyretics. Fevers were treated in one group if their temperatures went above 101 degrees compared to another group where the antipyretics weren’t started unless their temperatures reached 104 degrees. They had to stop the study prematurely because seven of those receiving the standard therapy died, compared to only one in the group that were allowed to have the higher fever. (Surgical Infections 05;6(4):369-375)
There is ample evidence, however, to show that allowing a high temperature is harmful to the brain after a head injury or stroke. This seems reasonable since the higher temperature probably increases inflammation and free radical formation in an area that is already damaged.
It has been Dr. William’s observation (and maybe yours as well) that when cold and flu medications that contain antipyretics are given at the first sign of a fever, the problem never seems to completely resolve, but becomes recurrent.
There seem to be a lingering productive cough, chronic draining, congestion, or about every 3 or 4 weeks the same problem returns. Oftentimes, in the case of a cold or the flu, it progresses to pneumonia.
How Fevers Heal
A lot more happens with fever than most realize. It can be an essential part of the healing process. At the sign of an infection, white blood cells produce specific proteins called pyrogens. Pyrogens reset your body’s temperature by acting on the part of the brain called the hypothalamus. Blood is diverted from the skin to the interior, reducing heat loss. This is why you can be “burning up” with a fever but “freezing” on the outside. The shivering (or chills) produces additional heat through muscle contraction. The body can conserve heat and persist in this mode for hours or days until it finally lets the fever break.
We all obviously feel better and can be more active without a fever. That’s why most people these days take medication to get rid of fever. In the long run, however, it can prevent our immune system from doing its job. As the doctors of yesteryear discovered, higher temperatures can directly kill pathogens. The immune system is also more efficient when temperatures are higher.
After reviewing the records of more than 400 patients admitted to a group of hospitals in the UK, researchers were somewhat shocked at the benefits of having a fever with respect to pneumonia and bloodstream infections. Gavin Barlow, an infectious disease consultant, discovered that the patients with the highest fevers upon admission also had the highest survival rates.
One-third of the patients with pneumonia and bloodstream infections, whose temperature was 98.6 degrees upon admission, died within 30 days. Just 8% of those with higher-than-normal temperatures died during that same time period. And, not a single person whose temperature was 104 degrees or greater when admitted died. (BMJ 10;340:c905)
As mentioned before, there haven’t been a lot of studies in this area and the few mentioned are rather small. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of money to be made in funding studies that show drug use to prevent fever makes problems worse.
Pathogens colonize in areas where the temperature and environment suit them best. For example, rhinoviruses (cold viruses) grow best at temperatures around 91 to 95 degrees. We haven’t been able to find any research on what the air temperature is within the nasal passages and sinus cavities, but surely it fluctuates depending on the outside temperature.
Since the function of this area is to warm inhaled air, it would seem the temperature would probably fall within the ideal range for rhinoviruses, particularly in cooler weather. It also makes sense that inhaling air heated to 113 to 115 degrees for 20 minutes or so has been shown to kill these pathogens. This is one reason saunas are helpful at getting rid of colds.
If you think about it, most of the natural health programs and philosophies focus on creating the right environment within the body and not so much on eradicating pathogens. With the proper environment, the right raw materials, and, when given the opportunity, our bodies can do amazing things.
The recommendation to “take some Advil or Tylenol to keep your fever down” is nothing but another classic case of treating a symptom and not the cause. The take-home from all this is to give your body a chance to fight an infection. Fever is a necessary part of the process. It is a friendly fire!