Of all the health concerns that parents bring to a doctor’s office, a child’s high fever is one of the most common. However, humans as well as other species in the animal kingdom use fevers to stimulate healing. Although there are exceptions, in the majority of cases there is no need to be overly concerned about a fever – even when it runs high.
Why Do People Get Fevers?
Generally, a fever occurs as an immune system response to an infection and is generated by the hypothalamus which is located in the brain. Although fevers usually indicate infection, they also function as part of the cure. A fever protects the body in three very significant ways:
• Fevers elevate core body temperature. Invading microorganisms have a harder time surviving in a high-temperature environment.
• Fevers help move iron to the liver. Harmful organisms use the host’s available iron supplies to fuel their growth. Fevers work to stimulate the transfer of iron to the liver where it is not easily accessible by pathogens.
• Fevers trigger the body’s healing mechanisms. An elevated temperature stimulates the production of white blood cells, disease-fighting proteins called interferon, and immune system antibodies – all of which work on the body’s behalf to eradicate harmful microorganisms.
Although fevers indicate infection most of the time, there are other causes such as poisoning, dehydration, sunstroke, and allergic reactions. In these cases, a physician should be consulted immediately.
Can Fevers Cause Brain Damage?
The short answer to this question is yes. However, conditions for fever-induced brain damage are rarely met.
A fever does not cause brain damage unless it is very high – usually over 107 degrees – and is sustained for a long period of time. Most people don’t realize it but a normal human brain is equipped with a self-protective mechanism that makes it virtually impossible for the core body temperature to rise above 106 degrees, making fever-induced brain damage a rarity.
High fevers can sometimes cause febrile seizures in young children. These seizures are not the result of a fever reaching a specific temperature threshold. Rather they result from the abrupt rise in body temperature. Although the thought of a seizure can be scary, febrile seizures are not only harmless, but they are also short-lived and leave no after effects.
When to Consult a Physician
Since fevers are usually part of the human body’s self-healing process, most of the time it is best to let a fever run its course and do its job. However, there are always medical exceptions and if a person is experiencing any of the following symptoms in conjunction with a fever they should see a physician immediately:
• Stiff neck
• Breathing difficulty
• Extreme heaviness in the limbs
• Prolonged listlessness
• Loss of control of bowels or urine
• Skin rashes
• Severe or prolonged pain
If none of these symptoms are present, treating a fever by drinking extra fluids and getting plenty rest is usually the best medicine.
Many parents panic and rush into the doctor’s office when their children have high fevers. And though fevers may cause varying degrees of discomfort to the sufferer, they are in and of themselves rarely harmful even when they run high. In fact, an elevated core body temperature serves as a defence mechanism that the human body uses to eradicate harmful pathogens. In most cases, fever can be treated at home by drinking plenty of fluids and resting.