You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Six common fever myths explained

ABC News logo ABC News 10/05/2016

Most of us associate fevers with feeling lousy. After all, we usually get fevers when we're sick. © Getty Images Most of us associate fevers with feeling lousy. After all, we usually get fevers when we're sick. Most of us have experienced a fever, but there's plenty of misunderstandings about what a fever really means and what, if anything, you should do about it. Here are six common fever myths.

Myth: You always need to treat a fever.

Fact: Fever is generally a symptom of an underlying illness, and treating it is not always necessary.

Fever is a body temperature that is higher than normal. Definitions vary, but generally that means a temperature above 37.8-38°C.

While fever usually occurs when the body is fighting an infection, it's generally seen as a symptom of an underlying disease, rather than an illness itself.

When we are infected with a virus or bacteria, the body releases chemicals that temporarily reset the body's 'thermostat' in the brain.

The result is the temperature your body is aiming for becomes higher temporarily.

This makes our immune system work better and it also makes it harder for bacteria and viruses to survive because our bodies are hotter than the temperature the germs like best to stay alive.

For this reason, treatment of fever is not always necessary. In many cases, the person gets better by themselves with rest and plenty of fluids.

But that doesn't mean you can ignore a fever altogether, as it can be a sign of an illness that's serious if not treated, so it's important to watch for any additional signs and know when to see the doctor.

Myth: Treating a fever always makes you feel better.

Fact: It's unclear if treating a fever always makes you feel better.

Most of us associate fevers with feeling lousy. After all, we usually get fevers when we're sick. 

While treating a fever with a medicine like paracetamol might make you feel better during your illness, how much of that is due to the fever coming down and how much is just the painkilling effect of the medicine isn't clear, says New Zealand fever researcher Dr Paul Young.

There's some evidence painkillers that lower fever might actually hinder your recovery from infections.

While that might not make much difference if you have only a mild infection like a cold, lowering a fever could potentially make the difference between life and death when people are critically ill, early research suggests (although more research is needed to test this idea).

In children, Associate Professor Madlen Gazarian, a Consultant in Paediatric Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics at the University of NSW, recommends medicine to lower fever when the fever is over 38.5°C (measured via the armpit) and the child is uncomfortable, such as if they have a headache or feel miserable.

The aim of any treatment for fever is to improve overall comfort, rather than trying to bring the temperature down to normal, she says.

There's little evidence fevers will keep rising if you don't treat them.

Myth: Teething can causes fevers in babies.

Fact: Research suggests teething does not cause fevers in babies.

The belief teething can cause fever in babies is common.

But a seven-month study where researchers monitored babies very closely to check what symptoms were linked to the appearance of new teeth found no evidence to support the idea.

It's just that the time frame when babies get a lot of new teeth (between four and 24 months old) overlaps with a time young children get a lot of infections, the most common cause of fevers in young children.

There is no known mechanism for pressure of new teeth on gums to cause a baby to have a fever.

Assuming your baby's fever is a symptom of teething means you might overlook an illness that needs medical treatment.

It can also lead to an overuse of pain-relieving medications and oral gels, which can cause problems long-term.

Research suggests some symptoms are linked to teething, but these don't include fevers.

Myth: Fever fits (febrile convulsions) are usually very dangerous.

Fact: Fever fits are almost never harmful.

Most children with fevers suffer only minor discomfort, but one in 30 will have a febrile convulsion or fever fit at one time or another.

This usually happens between the ages of six months and six years.

During a fit, the child usually loses consciousness, their muscles may stiffen and jerk, and they may go red or blue in the face.

These fits can be very upsetting for parents to witness but they do not cause brain damage and in fact are almost never harmful. If it happens to your child, you should try to stay calm and put them on a soft surface, lying them on their side or back.

Watch what happens so you can describe it later and time how long the convulsion lasts.

Do not put the child in a cold bath and do not attempt to restrain the child to stop the shaking as this may cause injuries.

There is nothing you can do to make the convulsion stop.

If it lasts more than five minutes, call an ambulance.

Otherwise make an appointment with your family doctor to discuss the episode.

Paracetamol or ibuprofen may help a child with fever feel more comfortable but they will not prevent febrile convulsions and you should not attempt to give any medicines while a convulsion is happening.

Myth: A high fever is a good way to tell a child has a severe illness.

Fact: Body temperature isn't always a reliable indicator of illness in babies and young children.

For children, rather than just relying on fever to gauge the severity of your their illness, ask yourself whether they appear to be distressed or in pain, if they are playing or moving around normally in the bed, whether they are alert and interested in their surroundings and whether they are wetting the usual number of nappies.

"Some children with a viral illness might have a temperature of 39°C and are running around happy as Larry.

They don't need anything given to them," says Consultant in Paediatric Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics Madlen Gazarian.

Take your child to the doctor if they have a temperature greater than 38.5°C under the armpit and:

- They look very sick

- They are under 6 months old

- You have been giving paracetamol every 4 to 6 hours for fever for 24 to 48 hours 

They have other symptoms such as:

- A stiff neck or light hurting their eyes

- Vomiting and refusing to drink much

- A rash

- Being more sleepy than usual

- Having problems with breathing pain.

- You are otherwise worried about them. 

Myth: A cold bath is a good way to bring down a fever.

Fact: A cold bath isn't recommended to bring down a fever.

While it might seem like a good idea to put a young child in a cold bath to bring down a fever, it's actually not recommended.

Cold water can increase core body temperature by cooling the skin and causing shivering.

For the same reason, sponging a child down with cold water is also not a good idea.

A tepid (lukewarm) bath, however, might make a child more comfortable. Some other simple measures that may make a child with a fever more comfort include:

- Drinking plenty of clear fluids to replace fluids lost by sweating, vomiting or diarrhoea – either water, or an oral rehydration solution which contains electrolytes.

- Changing clothing and bed linen frequently.

- Keeping clothes and blankets to a minimum.

- Avoiding hot water bottles or electric blankets (which may raise body temperature further).

- Ventilating the room.

More From ABC News

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon