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Eliminate the Fear, Not the Fever

Written by Susan Markel, MD   
Monday, 01 June 2009 00:00
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As loving and caring parents, we naturally want to help our children feel better when the inevitable fevers, colds, and illnesses arise. Many of us will reach for popular over-the-counter remedies to suppress fever and alleviate symptoms, in the belief that these products are reliable. Yet, it is important to recognize that by suppressing fever, we are suppressing a critical immune response—one that has a necessary function in fighting illness.

I can attest to the enormous fear that fever provokes in parents. By far, the greatest number of after-hours telephone calls are questions regarding the “management” of fever with drugs. Undue attention to a child’s temperature and mishandling of fevers generate a great deal of unwarranted parental anxiety, avoidable medical complications, and countless calls and costly visits to doctors and emergency rooms. As long as we remain captive to the medical myth that nature made a mistake in causing a fever during illness, our children will be put at risk.

Yes, fever can be uncomfortable. A child with a high fever will often seem irritable, lethargic, glassy eyed, and listless. This alerts you that the body is mobilizing defense against disease and you, in turn, must care for your child in the most appropriate way: encouraging rest and fluids. On the other hand, there may be no reason to treat even a high fever if your child seems happy, active and alert.

The pervasive belief that fever is dangerous and must be suppressed disregards the scientific evidence demonstrating its beneficial role in inflammatory diseases. The immune system depends on the fever to accomplish myriad tasks when gearing up to fight infections.

“Fever phobia” is made worse by hearing myths about children being severely harmed by having a high fever. Many people know of children or adults who had a high fever and ended up with some sort of injury…brain damage or hearing loss. These problems are never caused by fever. The likely explanation is that they had a serious illness that gave them a fever, but it was the illness that caused the brain damage or other result. The fever was only the body’s attempt to fight the infection.

“Doctors do a great disservice to you and your child when they prescribe drugs to reduce fever,” writes Dr. Robert Mendelsohn, pediatrician and author of How to Raise a Healthy Child In Spite of Your Doctor. “Fever phobia is a disease of pediatricians, not parents, and to the extent that parents are victimized by it, doctors are at fault.” Parents are left to fear that their child’s temperature will keep rising unless measures are taken to control it. Yet, reducing the child’s temperature will do nothing to make the child well, and our bodies have a built-in mechanism that will prevent an infection-induced temperature from reaching dangerous levels. Mendelsohn emphasizes that “only in the case of heatstroke, poisoning, or other externally caused fevers is this body mechanism overwhelmed and inoperative.”

“Fever: Your Body’s Defense Against Disease” is the title of Chapter 7 in Dr. Mendelsohn’s book, an excellent resource for parents seeking a balanced and accurate perspective of the beneficial role of fevers in childhood. Dr. Mendelsohn condemns the useless and dangerous practice of fever suppression through drugs, and counters the myth that high fever causes seizures. “Many parents are fearful of fevers because they have witnessed a convulsive seizure and believe their child may experience one if the body temperature is allowed to rise too high. High fevers do not cause convulsions. They result when the temperature rises at an extremely rapid rate and are relatively uncommon.” Only a small percentage of children with high fever experience convulsions, and those who do suffer them do not have any aftereffects. Simple febrile seizures are self-limited and harmless, although they are one of the most frightening things that a parent can witness.