Why You (Usually) Shouldn’t Treat a Fever

Two Girls With Fever

I grew up in a home without Tylenol, Motrin, or even aspirin in the medicine cabinet. My mother, a holistic health coach, never gave her kids fever-reducing medications when we were sick, and instead relied upon treatments that ranged from spoon-feeding us daikon-radish tea to placing warm onions over our ears.

Mom maintained that fevers serve an important function in the body’s immune response–and thus they should not be suppressed. At the time, conventional medical wisdom held that there was no downside to administering Advil or Tylenol as soon as the thermometer’s reading went about 98.6 degrees, so our pediatrician probably thought my mother was a crazy sadist.

As with so many things that she believed in the ‘80s (that margarine is worse for you than butter; that ear infections could often heal without antibiotics; that artificial sweeteners won’t help you lose weight, to name a few), time has vindicated her position: these days, pediatricians say that most fevers should indeed be left untreated.

Now a mother myself, I too am judicious with fever-reducing drugs when my own children are sick. If my boys are willing to just lie around, breastfeed (in the case of the baby), read books, or watch TV, I usually don’t a give them anything–even as their fevers climb into the 103-range.

4 Reasons to Let a Fever Run Its Course

These are the reasons I don’t usually give medication when my kids have fevers:

  1. Medicine masks symptoms. When kids are feverish, they usually lie still, eat very little, and take frequent naps. When we treat a fever, the child feels better and will often run around, play, and eat. While of course it always heartens me to see my sons feeling better, intuition tells me that they should rest more and move about less while fighting a virus. Perhaps our bodies even know that digestion requires lots of energy, and the appetite is suppressed in an effort to conserve resources.  Moreover, if we artificially lower the fever, how can we know when a child can return to school? I recently was at the playground with a mother who said her daughter was “so sick an hour ago, but after Tylenol she wanted to come outside to play!” As this little girl coughed all over my son, I wished this mom had skipped the Tylenol, or at least kept the child inside after the medication took effect.
  2. No medication is without side effects. I worry about the long-term consequences of frequent doses of children’s pain and fever medication. Recalls have made parents skittish, and some studies suggest a possible link between acetaminophen and autism, asthma, and—when taken during pregnancy–ADHD. In addition, these medications—whether in liquid or chewable candy form—are full of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, and preservatives, ingredients that I try to avoid giving my children even when they are feeling well.
  3. The fever helps the body heal. As I’ve already said, I think fevers are great for forcing otherwise active kids to rest when they need it most. But it seems a fever’s role in fighting illness is even more direct: evidence shows that fever is beneficial to the healing process, triggering the immune response and preventing viruses and bacteria from replicating. One study showed that flu sufferers who suppressed their fevers with medications were sick for more than three days longer than those who took no medication.
  4. Fever reducers contribute to the spread of flu. Many well-meaning parents administer medication and then take their less symptomatic—but still highly contagious–kids out to public places, where they no doubt infect others. Moreover, recent studies suggest that artificially lowering a fever in flu patients increases viral shedding, meaning more flu is spread via infected coughs and sneezes. Researchers posit that in an average flu season, fever-reducing medications could lead to tens of thousands of extra flu cases, and at least a thousand flu deaths in North America alone.

When to Treat Fevers

Despite these very good reasons for letting a fever run its course, I do sometimes give my kids ibuprofen (for the reasons listed above, I no longer use acetaminophen).

If my son is feverish and can do little more than whimper, or if his throat or ears are so painful that he cannot swallow without crying out, I give them the lowest effective dose of Children’s Motrin.

Beyond the obvious goal of reducing my your child’s suffering (and of course your own), you might consider a fever-reducing medication to:

  1. Get some rest. If my child is too uncomfortable to sleep more than a few minutes at a stretch, I give him a fever-reducer so that we all can rest, which is of course crucial when fighting a nasty virus.
  2. Make sure it’s just a minor illness. If a fever lingers for more than a couple of days and I’m starting to worry that my son is really sick, my husband sometimes suggests giving some Motrin to see if his mood and behavior improves. It seems my kid always end up running around, playing, and eating after a dose, and we are assured that the distress was likely caused by the fever and not something more sinister. (Of course, I am not a doctor, and you should talk to your pediatrician if you think your kid has something more than a minor virus, even if they seem to feel better when their fever goes down.)

I Love Motrin!

The evening after I wrote this post, my one-year-old woke up screaming with what I can only assume was an earache, based on the thick nasal congestion that’s been lingering for weeks.

He didn’t have a fever and was in such obvious discomfort that I gave him a teaspoon of liquid Children’s Motrin—his first dose ever!

While I know my mother would have baked an onion for his ear and rocked him all night if he were her child, I found myself feeling less guilty than grateful—grateful that my baby’s pain can be eased by modern medicine, artificial colors and all.

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  • Renee Kazmar

    I agree with all the points you made in your article. My 8 year old daughter was home from school for a week recently with a fever that never got above 100 degrees. I only gave her medicine one time and that was for a headache. She gets those often, so I’m not sure if it had anything to do with the fever. She healed up just fine.

  • Maia

    I agree, Renee–it’s hard for me to avoid medication when I see my kids really in pain. I usually take something myself when I get a fever, but two days after I sent this post to Dr. Lipman, I caught a nasty bug and ran a low fever for two days. Although being sick and having to be in the company of young kids could described as a form of torture, after researching this topic so deeply for this blog post, I opted to lie around whining instead of taking a couple of aspirin—much to my husband’s chagrin, I should add:).

  • parryander

    other reasons to give fever-reducing meds: children with febrile seizures. In order to keep the seizures at bay, both ibuprofen and acetaminophen doses are staggered. Otherwise I agree that fever (for kids defined as at or above 100.4 F) should be ridden out if possible.

  • Maia

    I have read that febrile seizures (which are almost always harmless) occur because of a rapid rise in temperature at the onset of the fever, and thus giving a fever-reducer once the fever is high wouldn’t help prevent a seizure.

  • Ruth

    What a schizophrenic and unscientific article! Very misleading and poorly written. Fevers can be very dangerous and infants and young children. Yes, it’s the body’s way of fighting infection, but sometimes causes more harm. You can find dye-free medicines, first of all, and secondly, as the writer says, if the child is able to rest and be comfortable, that in itself can be healing. This article should have been reviewed by at least a holistic pediatrician first before posting!!! Also, everyone in the scientific community knows about the danger of aspirin with fever in young children, so an article discussing the downsides of other antipyretics needs to be backed up by real information, not a commentary on her family life.

  • Maia

    Hi Ruth-
    Could you please share your sources that say that fevers in and of themselves are dangerous to young children? Also, Dr. Lipman (a MD, as you know) does review all my entries before posting. You are right that children should never been given aspirin! Thank you for your comments.

  • Maia

    Hi Ruth-
    Could you please share your sources that say that fevers in and of themselves are dangerous to young children? Also, Dr. Lipman (a MD, as you know) does review all my entries before posting. You are right that children should never been given aspirin! Thank you for your comments.

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  • Lorenacha K’uychiy

    baked an onion?

  • Maia

    haha, yes you can put a baked onion on the ear for natural relief!

  • Feli Jubatus

    When I was a kid I was always sick, I was always in the hospital for x reason, specially those damn colds, then I read a very old book I found, it was almost broken in pieces and it was even banned in many places, it mentioned what you say here and included studies about acetaminophen, diahorrea, fever… etc; there was one part in which they say that acetaminophen actually contributed to get sick again, and that was a damn market.

    I stopped 100% taking acetaminophen, ibuprofen, painkillers, 6 month later, I stopped being sick, it’s been 5 years since then, I haven’t gotten a cold or flu. I feel way better.

    I have never found that book again :( but it was very old.

  • Origami_Isopod

    “a holistic health coach” – IOW, a fraud.

  • Daniel

    Cool it Ruth, why so angry and agressive ? Its not a scientific paper, its a blogpost if u havent noticed.

  • Daniel

    Cool it Ruth, why so angry and agressive ? Its not a scientific paper, its a blogpost if u havent noticed.

  • Daniel

    Cool it Ruth, why so angry and agressive ? Its not a scientific paper, its a blogpost if u havent noticed.

  • Daniel

    I dont know about the onionstuff. Only experience i have from that was a collegue at work who insisted not taking any meds, instead she stuffed her ears with garlic. She did not get any better and eventually the company got tired of her and got rid of her :(

  • Daniel

    I dont know about the onionstuff. Only experience i have from that was a collegue at work who insisted not taking any meds, instead she stuffed her ears with garlic. She did not get any better and eventually the company got tired of her and got rid of her :(

  • Steve

    Maia,

    There are plenty of sources indicating the dangers of fevers, especially in children. I know some holisitc practitioners still advocate for letting fevers run wild and it slowly matriculating into the mainstream healthcare community but then quickly was dismissed, because there is strong research indicating the dangers of letting fevers run wild!

    There have been studies of fevers in pregnant women which has been linked to their children developing DCD (developmental cognitive disorder) and, as well, children who have had a febrile seizure are more than 2 times more likely to develop ADHD.

    I can list you these studies but you likely will not have access to them unless you are a medical student or nurse practitioner student, as these are from current medical research databases;

    Ku, Y., Muo, C., Ku, C., Chen, C., Lee, W., Shen, E., & … Kao, C. (2014). Risk of subsequent attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder in children with febrile seizures. Archives Of Disease In Childhood, 99(4), 322-326. doi:10.1136/archdischild-2013-304647

  • Melissa

    How about you don’t use the word schizophrenic to describe an article or a person. A person has schizophrenia. Schizophrenic is offensive. Period. Thanks!

  • Rachel

    Where have you been? The general rule among pediatricians is to only treat a fever of 103 and over. Why are you so aggressive?

  • Rings

    Is it due to the heat easing up the swelling? Or some sort of beneficial transdermal compounds in the onion?

  • Dawn Heather

    I totally agree that eliminating a fever is not medically sound. After years in respiratory therapy I learned from experienced Pulmonologists that fever has a place in reducing viral replication. My own flu and infectious episodes were past the crisis point in 24 hours by crawling in bed and bundling up under a warm electric blanket and pushing fluids.The body aches are the worst during the first 12 hours of high fever and forces the body to keep still, but it absolutely works and cuts recovery time to a couple of days. If pain tolerance is such that analgesics must be used, they should be kept to a minimum that is enough to alleviate pain without causing the body to break into a sweat. Sweating defeats the fever that defeats viral replication.

  • Dawn Heather

    I totally agree that eliminating a fever is not medically sound. After years in respiratory therapy I learned from experienced Pulmonologists that fever has a place in reducing viral replication. My own flu and infectious episodes were past the crisis point in 24 hours by crawling in bed and bundling up under a warm electric blanket and pushing fluids.The body aches are the worst during the first 12 hours of high fever and forces the body to keep still, but it absolutely works and cuts recovery time to a couple of days. If pain tolerance is such that analgesics must be used, they should be kept to a minimum that is enough to alleviate pain without causing the body to break into a sweat. Sweating defeats the fever that defeats viral replication.

  • Dawn Heather

    Ruth is a layman who bludgeons the article while missing the main point.

  • Dawn Heather

    Ruth is a layman who bludgeons the article while missing the main point.

  • Dawn Heather

    Ruth is a layman who bludgeons the article while missing the main point.

  • Amanda Rodriguez

    I dont agree with all the hate comments. You guys should really educate yourselves in the human body. Modern medicine can be great but complex. God (whatever relgion or belief,there is a higher power) made all things perfect (with the exception of our ability to have free will which give half of you nay sayers the right to post) with that being said our bodies can do amazing things. And the fact you discredict your body to not be able to heal itselft is very ignorant. My child and i are perfectly fine without regular use of OTC meds. Its really all about understanding and listening to the childs symtpoms and behavior. Email me if you really fight about this too at [email protected]. A FEVER BELOW 102. IS NOT GOING TO AUTOMATICALLY KILL YOUR CHILD. STOP BEING SO DANG PARANOID AND JUDGEMENTAL ABOUT STUFF YOU ARE TO IGNORANT TO UNDERSTAND.

  • Kaila Espiritu

    I’m currently sick and I am only 12 and my Mon is out of town and I have a fever that won’t go down , even when I take medicine. I feel like I’m gonna go to the hospital. I want my mom but she won’t be back till Monday night, and I don’t think I can handle it. My immune system feels like its not there and I think I might pass out. I need help.

  • victoria

    Hi there I agree if you are feeling like your going to pass out and your on your own go to hospital ASAP. Try call someone you know to come woth you, relative or friend perhaps. But please get some medical help now.

  • Shades McGee

    Don’t think you know what the word “schizophrenic” means, even in the usage you tried to deploy. The Mayo Clinic, for one, doesn’t agree with you (and I take their word over you): http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/fever/in-depth/fever/art-20050997. Yes, there are times where it should be used, but even they say it should be avoided unless the kid needs it/fever is too high.

    That’s where I diverge paths with the author tho, cos holistic medicine is full of quackery and pseudo-science.

  • Shades McGee

    Uhm – you do know they post these things publicly, right? http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24307684

    You are also taking great liberties with the conclusions of the study. The study specifically targeted children with a “history” of febrile seizures – not merely any child who had ever had a single febrile seizure. Secondly, the study says that children with recurring febrile seizures are “1.66 times more likely to develop ADHD”, which is a far cry from “more than two times” (also, even if you had just said 2%, it is extremely irresponsible to round .34 upwards in a study like this – such a rounding only has usage in basic mathematics, not in academic studies).

    Secondly, only 40% of children who experience a single febrile seizure (which occurs in 2-5% of the population prior to age 5) have a second febrile seizure. Also, it’s believed that the greatest risk for recurring febrile seizures is hereditary. And the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke points out (in my article below) that most children that have a febrile seizure do not require ongoing medication. (http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/febrile_seizures/detail_febrile_seizures.htm#3111_8)

    Moreso, there have been studies undertaken that show there are few medications that are effective at preventing febrile seizures. Antipyretics have never been shown to work in long-term prevention against febrile seizures, and whereas diazepam (valium) has, this study found more adverse effects than clinically important benefits in treating ongoing febrile seizures. (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD003031.pub2/abstract;jsessionid=5C13454E1BD9363EA27CE839BC772064.f01t01)

    which is not to say that febrile seizures are something to take lightly, but you have grossly misstated the conclusions of the abstract you quoted, plus stated claims the abstract never even made, to overstate the dangers of not treating a fever in children. Few medical experts such as MayoClinic would ever say “never treat a fever in a child”, but most of them will say don’t treat fevers under 102 degrees unless you absolutely have to.

  • Robert Wagenaar

    very interesting to see the differences between different countries. What you describe would be considered very mainstream here in the Netherlands. Indeed, advise from our association of General Practitioners is based on the following premises:

    – fever as such does not need treatment
    – antipyretics are not necessary
    – the degree of illness is more important than the height of the fever

    It’s incredible (for me) to read in the link to the Washington Post article you provided that many parents in the US use antipyretics for ‘fevers’ of just 100 Fahrenheit. 90% of parents here wouldn’t even consider that a fever, let alone treat it with medicine.

  • Whitney

    Schizophrenic is a noun not an adjective, sweety. Although, schizophrenics commonly make the mistake of confusing the two, so maybe you should have yourself checked. :-)

  • Tiffany

    I don’t normally give my children anything for fever below 102. At 102 if they are calm, resting and taking fluids I watch them. At 103 I give them something to ease it especially if they are feeling really miserable. I do pretty much the same for myself. Fever is pretty tolerable, it’s pain that makes things unbearable. I believe in the body healing itself but also realize there is a time when an antibiotic may be in order..that’s my 2 cents.

  • Samantha Bergdoll

    I’m 19. Clearly not a KID anymore however when it comes to being sick, I am such a child. I had the worst chills I have ever had, and the first fever in about 3 years and it was just awful . I work at a very busy law firm in New York and I was so upset because my work ethic completely disappeared while a harsh fever took its place.
    My boss (is the best and I owe him the world for all he does for me) picked up Tylenol Fever-Reducer capsules from CVS (my mother was the one who recommended he do this) and despite my dislike towards pills, medicines etc., I took two of the capsules and in about 5 minutes I was WARM. I wasn’t shaking, I wasn’t achey, I wasn’t in pain anymore… It was AMAZING. My job doesn’t require a lot of locomotion so that’s the reason I wasn’t as hesitant as usual in taking the pills.
    I am back to doing my work and my bosses and co-workers are very content, as am I!
    ^_^ I officially recommend fever reducer!
    -SLB

  • JeffnSummer Kirby

    Lol, chill lady

  • JeffnSummer Kirby

    Good point

  • Steven Bell

    I, too, was always coming down with this cold or that earache, and the FLU… and was always treated with antibiotics, fever-reducers, and flu-shots during the winter months. When I left home for college, I consciously stopped ALL prescription and non-prescription meds. I also stopped getting a yearly flu shot. No Tylenol, no ibuprofen, no antibiotics… and I stopped getting sick.
    In the 13 years since, I have gotten a sinus infection once, when I was having a mold issue due to a leaking water heater. It cleared up after about 5 days. I have gotten one earache, the left ear, that went away on its own within 36 hours.
    Yes, that one hurt a bit… No, it didn’t cause any hearing loss or damage.
    I have not gotten the flu ONCE since I stopped getting flu shots. All in all, my OPINION is that “Western medicine” is mainly a money-making scheme. ‘They’ do their best to convince you that you’re being healed, meanwhile they’re loading you up with chemicals they know are bound to send you back to them.

    Break the cycle, Trust your body! It can do amazing things!