Can I suffer through a fever and expect to get better sooner?
March 21, 2006 10:50 AM   Subscribe

If a fever is the human body's response to pathogens, does taking medicine to bring down one's fever increase recovery time? If this is true, is it true of all medicines that treat cold/flu symptoms?
posted by Mayor Curley to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
From my vast research (OK, I just googled it), it seems that no one knows for sure what good a fever does, but that it does no harm to let the fever alone (a fever is usually not dangerous), and that fever probably helps the body recover or it wouldn't occur in us and other animals.

Read here and here if you, too, want to be edumacated in feverology.

(I have similar questions about colds and diarrhea.)
posted by pracowity at 11:16 AM on March 21, 2006

My, admittedly limited, understanding is that fevers are not about "working overtime to kill those germs" or "cook those nasty beasts," but more of a secondary effect that's meant to signal the patient "don't go on that ski trip."
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:29 AM on March 21, 2006

it does no harm to let the fever alone (a fever is usually not dangerous)

Depends on how high it is. A slight fever is not a big deal, but a high and sustained one is another story.

I'm going on fuzzy recollection here, so I can't exactly define "slight" and "high and sustained". But I wouldn't treat any and all fevers as totally benign.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 11:40 AM on March 21, 2006

Then only danger I know of with fever is (mostly) children who have a fever over 102. They can go into febrile seizures, but the nurses at my hospital have told me the seizure itself is harmless unless the child chokes or falls.
posted by Ugh at 12:37 PM on March 21, 2006

Response by poster: Right, right, right. I get that the fever is good for killing germs. What I want to know is: if I reduce my fever, will it make me take longer to recover from my cold? Because I'm interfering with my body's natural response purely because it makes me feel uncomfortable.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:44 PM on March 21, 2006

An important point is being missed here -- what is causing the fever? If viral, there's nothing to be done. The medication merely treats the symptoms, not the cause. If bacterial or fungal, unless the medication is an antibiotic or antifungal, this is also just treating the symptoms.

The lowered fever might make you feel better, qualitatively, and that might help the holistic healing process. But that's not really measureable. Unless the medication is actually treating the root cause of the fever, it's not speeding the recovery time.
posted by frogan at 1:20 PM on March 21, 2006

Best answer: I'm on my Pediatrics rotation right now. Kids are all about fevers, and parents are all about worrying about fevers.

Fever is still poorly understood, and I don't know of any study that has compared treating it to not. I'd imagine if there was a strong one out there that says people definitely do better with fever treated/not treated, I'd have heard about it. Generally treatment is thought not to hurt, and definitely makes a person feel better. You could do a pubmed search if you're really curious; I bet the studies would be old, and I bet you'd find some that say one thing, and others that say another.

Fever is caused by changes in regulation by your posterior hypothalamus. When the body is infected (or inflamed in some circumstances), immune cells release chemical factors to tell the hypothalamus to increase the body's thermostat. I've heard different theories about fever; the one I like best argues that bacteria thrive less well at higher temperatures, and the body's own chemical reactions to fight infections work better at higher temps. Anecdotal study: If you give two lizards a pneumonia, and allow one to seek a warm environment, and the other has to stay in a cooler environment, the one in the warmer environment will seek out the warmth and will be more likely to fight off the pneumonia.

Ugh is partially right; we do worry about febrile seizures, but it can be at any temperature considered a fever (100.4F is a "fever" for pediatricians). Febrile seizures are common, about 3-5% of the population experience them, without any sequelae. They are more likely to recur in young kids, and if the kid is older than 5, it's not a febrile seizure anymore.

We also worry about very high fevers (105F or above). At that range, we want to get the fever under control, because we can see consequences if it goes higher. There are at least two rare-but-deadly hyperthermia syndromes, neuroleptic malignant syndrome (when taking antipsychotics) and malignant hyperthermia (when using anesthetics in people with a certain mutation).
posted by gramcracker at 1:27 PM on March 21, 2006

Colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria. Even if fever kills bacteria, it will have no effect on cold viruses.

If you have a bacterial disease, antibiotics will kill the bacteria far faster than fever could.

If bringing a fever down avoids suffering, do it.
posted by KRS at 1:44 PM on March 21, 2006

When I last looked at this, it sounded like Fever was a rather blunt instrument. Sometimes, it might help, but antibiotics help more. Othertimes, it doesn't seem to make much difference, other than making you feel crummy.
posted by Good Brain at 2:28 PM on March 21, 2006

Best answer: A bit of clarification from further up- a fever won't actually kill a virus or bacterium, but it will adversely affect its replication rate. Most microorganisms have a narrow 'optimal' temperature- push the environment above or below that, and their growth rate will plummet. Since it is hard to lower your body temp, it gets upregulated instead. Dropping the replication rate of the pathogen will (theoretically) allow your immune system to get ahead of it (barring other complicating factors, compromised immune system, etc). Your immune system is far from a blunt instrument, and generally has very good reasons for the things it does. Conversely, I wouldn't begrudge someone relief- I personally try to ride it out, though.
posted by gadavis at 6:22 PM on March 21, 2006

That is interesting gadavis, my mother and I run a consistently low temperature, 2 degrees at least below normal and we hardly ever get sick. My mother is 63 and hs probably had two colds in her entire life. I had all the normal childhood diseases, for about 12 hours each and still usually only get about 10% of the sicknesses everyone around me gets.
posted by fshgrl at 12:27 AM on March 22, 2006

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