In the broadest sense, fevers are when the body experiences a higher than normal temperature. Contrary to popular understanding, a fever is not actually an illness. Rather, it’s a symptom of an illness – or more specifically a sign that your body is fighting one off. Subsequently, no two fevers are ever exactly alike. Depending on what triggered it, and how effective the body’s attempt to fight it off are, the common features may vary.

This article is written for families, with a view to helping them address the various ways fevers can be detected and treated in the home.

What causes a fever

Fevers can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or – less typically – certain fungal spores (valley fever). A common illness that leads to a fever is the flu; however, all sorts of other conditions will also be accompanied by a fever, from the common cold and tonsillitis to more serious illnesses like meningitis.

Signs of fever

In general, a fever will carry the following effects:

  • Weakness
  • Body aches
  • Cold sweat and shivering
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

Another way to tell if someone has developed a fever is to take their body temperature readings with a thermometer. If it’s raised above a certain level (for details, see below in ‘When to call a doctor’) you can safely assume that a fever has set in.

How to treat a fever

Firstly, it’s important not to panic. Fevers are not necessarily serious, as they are a natural reaction of the body as it fights off a viral or bacterial infection.

Rest

Often, all that is needed is plenty of bed rest, and the fever will break on its own once the infection has been overcome by the body’s immune system. So make sure that whoever has the fever is kept laying down as still as possible. Too much activity can raise body temperature even higher, which could make the fever worse.

Stay cool

Try to keep the person cool and comfortable. While received wisdom may say otherwise, you can’t sweat out a fever. If anything, trying to do so will just make symptoms worse by causing dehydration. This will lead to dizziness, headaches, and more painful cramps. So the best thing to do is to make the person as comfortable as possible and let the fever run its course.

Light, breathable clothing can help, and no more than a blanket or a thin sheet for cover. Open a window to make sure that there’s a cool draught and fresh air flowing through the room.

While these can help lower body temperature, soothing fever-like symptoms, be cautious about lowering the temperature too quickly. This can often make a fever worse. Never use cold water, and instead opt for tepid liquids that are no warmer than room temperature.

Hydrate

The increased body temperature and excessive sweating is likely to cause dehydration. So always make sure that the patient takes on plenty of fluids. Nausea and lack of appetite may make them hard to stomach, but always ensure that they drink at least some water to keep them from dehydrating. Avoid alcohol and carbonated drinks; offer them water, fruit juice or milk instead. Try to make sure they eat something too. The body will need all the strength it needs to fight the illness off and help the fever break.

Can I use medication?

No medication can cure a fever, unfortunately, but certain things can be bought over the counter to help soothe some of the worst effects. For the aches and pains that come with fevers, ibuprofen, aspirin or paracetamol can all help. This can be especially effective if the aching is causing disturbed rest, thus promoting a swift recovery.

Of course, any such medication shouldn’t be used if the person is allergic to it, or if a doctor has recommended against it. Always read the packaging for instructions before taking or giving medication. Avoid giving aspirin to young children as well, and always opt for medication specifically tailored towards them. Pregnant people should not take ibuprofen.

When to call a doctor

Consulting a doctor is recommended if the fever lasts for more than a couple of days, is accompanied by a rash, chest pains and breathing difficulties, or constant vomiting. If necessary, head straight to A&E if you can’t get in touch with your GP. Similarly, seek medical help if the person shows symptoms but does not have a temperature, as illness isn’t always accompanied by fever.

If you’re running a fever while pregnant, you should probably call a doctor or your midwife regardless of circumstances just to be on the safe side. Fevers can be especially dangerous during this period, both to the baby and the mother.