Why You (Usually) Shouldn’t Treat a Fever

Two Girls With Fever

I grew up in a home without Tylenol, Motrin, or even aspirin in the medicine cabinet. My mother, a holistic health coach, never gave her kids fever-reducing medications when we were sick, and instead relied upon treatments that ranged from spoon-feeding us daikon-radish tea to placing warm onions over our ears.

Mom maintained that fevers serve an important function in the body’s immune response–and thus they should not be suppressed. At the time, conventional medical wisdom held that there was no downside to administering Advil or Tylenol as soon as the thermometer’s reading went about 98.6 degrees, so our pediatrician probably thought my mother was a crazy sadist.

As with so many things that she believed in the ‘80s (that margarine is worse for you than butter; that ear infections could often heal without antibiotics; that artificial sweeteners won’t help you lose weight, to name a few), time has vindicated her position: these days, pediatricians say that most fevers should indeed be left untreated.

Now a mother myself, I too am judicious with fever-reducing drugs when my own children are sick. If my boys are willing to just lie around, breastfeed (in the case of the baby), read books, or watch TV, I usually don’t a give them anything–even as their fevers climb into the 103-range.

4 Reasons to Let a Fever Run Its Course

These are the reasons I don’t usually give medication when my kids have fevers:

  1. Medicine masks symptoms. When kids are feverish, they usually lie still, eat very little, and take frequent naps. When we treat a fever, the child feels better and will often run around, play, and eat. While of course it always heartens me to see my sons feeling better, intuition tells me that they should rest more and move about less while fighting a virus. Perhaps our bodies even know that digestion requires lots of energy, and the appetite is suppressed in an effort to conserve resources.  Moreover, if we artificially lower the fever, how can we know when a child can return to school? I recently was at the playground with a mother who said her daughter was “so sick an hour ago, but after Tylenol she wanted to come outside to play!” As this little girl coughed all over my son, I wished this mom had skipped the Tylenol, or at least kept the child inside after the medication took effect.
  2. No medication is without side effects. I worry about the long-term consequences of frequent doses of children’s pain and fever medication. Recalls have made parents skittish, and some studies suggest a possible link between acetaminophen and autism, asthma, and—when taken during pregnancy–ADHD. In addition, these medications—whether in liquid or chewable candy form—are full of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, and preservatives, ingredients that I try to avoid giving my children even when they are feeling well.
  3. The fever helps the body heal. As I’ve already said, I think fevers are great for forcing otherwise active kids to rest when they need it most. But it seems a fever’s role in fighting illness is even more direct: evidence shows that fever is beneficial to the healing process, triggering the immune response and preventing viruses and bacteria from replicating. One study showed that flu sufferers who suppressed their fevers with medications were sick for more than three days longer than those who took no medication.
  4. Fever reducers contribute to the spread of flu. Many well-meaning parents administer medication and then take their less symptomatic—but still highly contagious–kids out to public places, where they no doubt infect others. Moreover, recent studies suggest that artificially lowering a fever in flu patients increases viral shedding, meaning more flu is spread via infected coughs and sneezes. Researchers posit that in an average flu season, fever-reducing medications could lead to tens of thousands of extra flu cases, and at least a thousand flu deaths in North America alone.

When to Treat Fevers

Despite these very good reasons for letting a fever run its course, I do sometimes give my kids ibuprofen (for the reasons listed above, I no longer use acetaminophen).

If my son is feverish and can do little more than whimper, or if his throat or ears are so painful that he cannot swallow without crying out, I give them the lowest effective dose of Children’s Motrin.

Beyond the obvious goal of reducing my your child’s suffering (and of course your own), you might consider a fever-reducing medication to:

  1. Get some rest. If my child is too uncomfortable to sleep more than a few minutes at a stretch, I give him a fever-reducer so that we all can rest, which is of course crucial when fighting a nasty virus.
  2. Make sure it’s just a minor illness. If a fever lingers for more than a couple of days and I’m starting to worry that my son is really sick, my husband sometimes suggests giving some Motrin to see if his mood and behavior improves. It seems my kid always end up running around, playing, and eating after a dose, and we are assured that the distress was likely caused by the fever and not something more sinister. (Of course, I am not a doctor, and you should talk to your pediatrician if you think your kid has something more than a minor virus, even if they seem to feel better when their fever goes down.)

I Love Motrin!

The evening after I wrote this post, my one-year-old woke up screaming with what I can only assume was an earache, based on the thick nasal congestion that’s been lingering for weeks.

He didn’t have a fever and was in such obvious discomfort that I gave him a teaspoon of liquid Children’s Motrin—his first dose ever!

While I know my mother would have baked an onion for his ear and rocked him all night if he were her child, I found myself feeling less guilty than grateful—grateful that my baby’s pain can be eased by modern medicine, artificial colors and all.