As any parent can tell you, when your child has a fever, it can be an emotional rollercoaster that ranges from having sympathy for your child to worry and possibly fear. But if you understand what the body is doing and why your child has a fever, it can help reduce some of your anxiety.
A fever is the body’s way of sterilizing itself. When speaking with my patients, I call it their body’s way of cooking off the “ick”. If you’ve ever played Pac-Man, you know that when the Pac-Man eats the flashing lights, the ghosts lose their color and slow down. Pac-Man, on the other hand, speeds up. This allows him to catch up to the ghosts and devour them. Your body works much the same way. When you’ve been exposed to an intruder that is trying to wreak havoc on you, your body will raise your internal temperature so that your version of Pac-Man, your white blood cells, can speed up. In this warmer environment, the intruders don’t move as fast as they normally do, which allows your white blood cells to catch up to the intruder and kill it, much like Pac-Man does to the ghosts.
When you give your child something to reduce the fever, you’ve just reduced their body’s natural ability to protect itself by fighting off the intruder.
Most of the time, fevers run a predictable course. Your child may express to you that they are not feeling well; with infants and toddlers, you may notice that they are not acting like they normally do. You feel their forehead and notice that they feel warm. This is a low grade fever and is indicative of the early stages of their little body trying to fight off the infection. Your child may want to take a nap at this point; but if they feel well enough to continue playing, that’s usually fine as long as the child is not running around, getting overheated and sweating. After a little while, you may check to see if they are still warm, and most likely they are. At some point, your child may feel very warm, this is when most parents first take their child’s temperature. A reading above 101 degrees often startles most parents into thinking something is wrong and that they must try to break the fever. This couldn’t be further from the truth. When the temperature creeps above 100 degrees, the body is well aware of what it needs to do. It needs to rapidly raise the temperature a few degrees, allowing the white blood cells to kill as many intruders as quickly as possible, and then drop the temperature back down to 100 degrees or lower. This is called a fever spike, and it can be scary and alarming for a parent. We feel how warm our child is, take the temperature at the highest point of the fever spike, and assume there is a problem that needs to be corrected by administering a drug to the child.
Recent research shows that even a temperature of 104 degrees is neither a cause for alarm, nor an indication that anything needs to be done to reduce the fever, as long as the child is not lethargic and still has an interest in food or drink. Remember, the point at which most parents take the temperature is usually the hottest point of the fever spike. If you retake the temperature in five minutes, the fever should be coming back down. Within ten to fifteen minutes, the fever will most likely have dropped back down to 100 degrees. If the temperature remains at 104 for several minutes, you may want to use a few damp cloths to wipe your child’s head, neck and torso to help them feel more comfortable.
It’s important to understand that a fever is the body’s natural method for fighting off infections. In most situations, your child may experience a little fussiness as they try to sleep through this normal process. By allowing their body to go through this process, you allow their immune system to do what it is designed to do. This gives their immune system a great workout and ultimately strengthens their immune response. An interference to this normal process in the form of a prescription or over the counter drug would decrease the body’s reliance on the immune system and ultimately result in a weakened immune response. That means that the next time your child is exposed to an intruder, it has not learned how to defend itself and will have a tougher time killing the infection. We see this in the office in children who have been given multiple prescriptions for antibiotics for recurring infections; infections that the body should have been able to fight on its own had it been given the chance to.
As a doctor, I understand the science and physiology of the various immune responses such as fever. As a mother, I understand the emotions one might experience when they see their child not feeling well. But I also understand that there is a life force that drives their body; an inborn intelligence that knew to give them arms, legs, eyes, ears and a mouth, as well as a heart that beats without us telling it to, lungs that began to breathe the instant they were born, and a digestive system that knows to pull nutrients out of the foods we eat and discard the garbage. And I know that this inborn intelligence will do everything it can to protect their little body, as long as that intelligence is not interfered with. It does exactly that, everyday, in every one of us.