Photo of a mother taking her child's temperature
Fever requires gentle attention rather than aggressive action

Don’t fear the fever!

23 January, 2014

Fever often develops during an infection or other illness.

It’s part of a natural, even helpful, bodily process, yet of all the symptoms that motive us to do or take something, fever must be near the top of the list.

Although we generally think of fever as a bad thing, fever enhances the inflammatory response of the body, and certain components of the immune system work optimally at increased body temperature.

Fever also helps to limit the growth of some germs that cannot grow well at higher temperatures.

Studies, for instance, show that, the influenza virus thrive and multiply best at a temperature of 34-35° C but poorly, if at all, at temperatures greater than 37° C. So lowering fever antipyretic (fever-lowering) medicines may actually prolong the agony of a cold or flu.

By encouraging the virus to replicate, as recent research has shown they can raise the risk of flu spreading.

A note about children

For children, fever can serve another important function. Our children are not born with mature immune systems and fever is one way of activating and ‘educating’ the immune system to respond when needed. Because of this, temperatures up to 39° C (102° F) don’t usually provide sufficient grounds for medication unless your child is prone to convulsions. If in doubt though, always check with your practitioner.

Instead of drugs which may not work, and which have been linked to other health problems like hyperactivity, parents should be encouraged to pay attention. This means monitoring children for signs of dehydration, irritability, activity level and appetite. The goal, given mild fever’s beneficial effects, is to soothe and improve the child’s overall comfort rather than focus returning body temperature to ‘normal’.

So what is the best way to deal with fever (whatever your age)?

Gentle choices

Given that most of us will never even get close to the kind of life-threatening fever we fear, what is the best way to proceed?

The first thing any practitioner would do is to rule out any serious bacterial infection or other conditions that may be causing the problem. That done there is very little that an allopathic practitioner can do other than offer support and, if pressed, medicine to deal with symptoms.

Even these days, antipyretics tend to be given to deal with the patient’s (or the parent’s) distress rather than because it is needed – or even effective. This ‘fever phobia‘ can lead to unnecessarily aggressive treatments being used.

Naturopathic physicians and other alternative practitioners, take a different view. They have a long anecdotal history of supporting rather than suppressing fevers. Since fevers are seen as a beneficial healing process, naturopathic physicians tend to use over-the-counter or conventional pain-relievers and antipyretics sparingly and opt instead for hydrotherapy, as well as herbal and homoeopathic remedies.

It’s a view that is beginning to catch on in conventional circles. A recent report in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal states treatment focus on making the patient more comfortable rather than focus on achieving a ‘normal’ temperature.

If you or someone you know, particularly a child has a fever pay attention to hydration. Take plenty of fluids, warm or at room temperature, such as clear broth, chamomile tea, diluted apple juice, water either plain or with lemon.

Traditional barley water is also a good option. To make, simmer 2 tablespoons barley in 1 ½ cups of water, covered, for an hour. Strain and serve.

Stay as warm as you can stand, wrapped in blankets, and taking in some fluids every 15-20 minutes. Keep the head cool (see ‘hydrotherapy below).

You can help the process of healing along naturally in three main ways:

Water, or ‘hydrotherapy’ works by encouraging heat loss through evaporation. The most common type of hydrotherapy is a sponge bath in either tepid or blood temperature sponge baths. There is early research to show that warm sponging can be just as effective at reducing skin temperature as paracetamol.

Sponge bathing also provides gentle friction, which further promotes peripheral circulation and therefore increased heat loss. Given how widely used they are hydrotherapy techniques have not been well studied, though a 2003 Cochran review concluded that a few small studies have found the sponging method effective in children. There is also evidence that sponging produces a quicker reduction in temperature, though perhaps not surprisingly the effect of sponging and medications appears to last longer.

You can also help ease fevers with an aromatherapy compress. Soak a wash cloth in a bowlful of tepid water to which you have added 6-8 drops of a cooling essential oil such as peppermint, lavender, chamomile, eucalyptus, basil or bergamot.

For higher temperatures try a “warming sock” treatment, which consists of dry wool socks put on over cold, wet cotton socks with the patient covered and warm.

Herbs have a long history of use for their diaphoretic (sweat inducing) and cooling effects on the body. Many practitioners believe thatonce a person with a fever begins to sweat, it means the fever is on it’s way down. One advantage of using herbs is that you can tailor the remedy and the dose more easily to suit the patient’s individual needs.

Well-known diaphoretics include yarrow (Achillea millefolium), linden (Tilia tomentosa), elderflower (Sambucus nigra), meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) and peppermint (Mentha piperita).

These can brewed as teas and also combined with immune-enhancing herbs such as echinacea (Echinacea purpurea, E. angustofolia).

For fractious children chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is also a good choice.

Herbs with an affinity for a specific organ system may also be incorporated into the treatment. For example,  buchu (Barosma betulina) can be used for a urinary tract infection, goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) for gastrointestinal concerns, or hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) for respiratory tract infections in combination with the diaphoretic and immune-stimulating herbs.

These preparations can be administered as teas or tinctures or frozen into popsicles.  Herbal teas may also be cooled to a comfortable temperature and used as enemas or combined with hydrotherapy principles and used as a sponge bath.

Homoeopathy aims to support the patient’s innate ability to heal and encourage the body to shift from disease to health; it treats the whole person, not the disease. For this reason, homoeopathic remedies should be chosen to suite the individuals not just the disease.

Even so there are a few good standbys for treating fever that it can be useful to keep in your alternative first-aid kit.  Chamomilla can be used for fevers in irritable infants and children with great sensitivity to pain, while China may be a good choice for intermittent or periodic fevers, with chills and drenching sweats. Ferrum phosphoricum can be used for moderate fevers without differentiating symptoms.

For children or when in doubt about what herbal or homoeopathic remedy to choose always consult a qualified practitioner.