This summer while I was volunteering as the doctor for a summer overnight camp, I had a little girl present with a fever and nothing else. No sore throat, no cough, no tender tummy, no earache. She wasn’t having diarrhea and she wasn’t throwing up. Just a fever. What to do?
We live in a culture afraid of illness. We don’t seem to trust our bodies to get well. Any little twinge sends us running for the Tylenol or the Advil. We do it for ourselves, and we do it for our kids.
Here’s the thing – that fever, that lethargy, that blah feeling? That desire to curl up with a blanket and a cup of hot peppermint tea? It’s our body’s brilliant way of telling us to conserve energy and resources for defending against an intruder. Fevers serve a huge purpose when we’re ill – they create an inhospitable environment for viruses and bacteria; they shift our immune system into “on” mode; they increase our heart rate and output, helping circulate all the factors that are necessary to get us well. Suppressing the fever turns all of that off, which may make us feel better in the short term, but does us no favours in the long run – it may actually impair the immune system’s ability to fight the infection, possibly increasing the time we take to recover!
Fevers are helpful. In the context of an otherwise healthy body, they are not harmful. They are self-limiting. And the most important thing is to find the cause of the fever, not to indiscriminately (fearfully?) yank it down. In older kids (ie. over three) we can tolerate a reasonable temperature for a little while even if there are no other signs or symptoms, letting the body sort it out. If the fever helps the immune system do its job before symptoms manifest, then excellent! And there are lots of ways to make a child more comfortable in the meantime using herbs, water therapy and homeopathy – strategies that increase comfort while helping the fever, not opposing it.
So that little girl. I tucked her into bed, gave her lots to drink, and checked on her throughout the day. In a few hours, her temperature was normal, her energy was back up, and she was back at play. Hopefully with a stronger, wiser immune system that was permitted to do its job.