What causes fever?

June 11, 2010  |  General

Here is another excerpt from my upcoming book, How Your Child Heals. It’s about fever, from the chapter about symptoms and signs.

Fever means an abnormal elevation of body temperature. But what is abnormal? Most of us have heard or read that “normal” is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 37 degrees centigrade. In fact, normal temperature varies throughout the day. It is as much as one degree lower in the morning than in the afternoon, and exertion of any kind raises it. Where you measure it also matters. Internal temperature, such as taken on a child with a rectal thermometer, is usually a degree or so higher than a simultaneous measurement taken in the mouth or under the arm pit.

There is also a range of what is normal for each individual — not all people are the same. So what is a fever in me may not be a fever in you. As a practical matter, most doctors stay clear of this controversy by choosing a number to label as fever that is high enough so this individual variability does not matter. Most choose a value of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or 38 degrees centigrade, as the definition of fever. It is not a perfect answer, but it is a number that has stood the test of time in practice.

We maintain our normal body temperature in several ways. Chief among them is our blood circulation. Heat radiates from our body surface, so by directing blood toward or away from our skin we can unload or conserve heat. We can also control body temperature by sweating — evaporation of sweat cools us down. We know how important a mechanism this is because the rare person who cannot sweat, or who is taking a medicine that interferes with sweating, has trouble keeping his body temperature regulated when he gets sick. If a swing in blood flow inwards to raise temperature happens very fast, we respond by shivering. This is also why we shiver if we go outside without a coat in the winter; our bodies are redirecting blood flow from our skin to our core in order to maintain temperature.

All parents know that a common cause of fever in children is infection. A more precise way to think about it is that a common cause of fever is actually inflammation. Since in children infection is the most common cause of inflammation, we generally assume a child with a fever has an infection somewhere in her body unless we can prove otherwise.

Our brains have a kind of thermostat built into them. Like the thermostat in a house, it senses the temperature of the blood passing by it and uses a series of controlling valves in the blood circulation to fine-tune the temperature. Also like your house thermostat, it continues to sense the temperature, and adjust it as necessary, until it has reached the value for which the thermostat is set. Fever happens when the thermostat is reset, just as happens when you twist the dial on the wall for your furnace — the body reacts to bring itself to the new setting. What twists the knob on the brain’s thermostat to cause fever are substances in the blood.

These fever-inducing substances belong to a family of inflammatory molecules that are released from body cells. Mostly they come from a cell called a macrophage, but germs themselves can also release things that have the same effect. The sudden rises and falls a parent often sees in their child’s temperature when they have an infection reflect the usually brief time these substances are in the blood. Sustained fever for many hours can happen if these materials are steadily present.

Opinions vary among doctors about when fever needs treatment. Fever itself virtually never causes harm on its own. The only times it can do harm is when it gets very, very high — 106 degrees or more — for a sustained period. That only happens in highly unusual situations; ordinary childhood infections never get it that high. It is true fever can make a child uncomfortable, although children generally tolerate it much better than adults. For that reason alone many doctors advise treatment.

There is another reason to treat fever. Toddlers may experience brief convulsions – seizures — when their body temperature rises very fast. These so-called febrile seizures cause no harm to the brain itself, and often run in families, but fever treatment makes good sense for a child who has had them in the past.

We have two effective drugs to treat fever — acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin). Both work the same way: they reset the brain thermostat back down to a lower lever. Both only last a few of hours or so in their effect, which is why you will see your child’s fever go back up again when they wear off if there are still any of those fever-causing substances from the inflamed site still in the circulation.


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