Can I Use Rubbing Alcohol to Bring Down a Fever?

Many people worry about fevers, and folk remedies for bringing down one's temperature abound. One suggestion that has made the rounds for years: Sponging down the skin with rubbing alcohol (isopropanol) will break a fever. Not only is treating a fever not critical unless it gets too high, but this supposed "remedy" is ineffective as well as dangerous.

mother using cloth to wipe feverish daughter's forehead
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Why It Doesn't Work

When applied to the skin, rubbing alcohol evaporates rapidly. That causes a cooling sensation that might be a welcome relief when you're miserable with a fever.

However, that rapid cooling is part of the problem with this remedy—it cools the skin too quickly, which can cause chills and make you shiver. That signals the body that you're too cold, causing it to turn up your internal thermostat even more.

Additionally, cooling the skin doesn't do anything to lower the core body temperature, so it provides temporary comfort at best. If someone's really uncomfortable because of a fever, doctors recommend a lukewarm (not cold) bath—without alcohol—to provide short-term relief.

Safety Concerns

Using rubbing alcohol on the skin can be dangerous, especially for children. It's toxic and can be absorbed through the skin, as well as inhaled.

According to medical research, accidental isopropyl alcohol poisoning is common and the majority of cases are in children under 6 years old. The effects of poisoning include:

  • Central nervous system depression
  • Slowed breathing
  • Shock
  • Circulatory collapse

Isopropyl alcohol poisoning can be fatal and requires immediate medical care.

Treating a Fever

Not all fevers need to be treated. Your body temperature goes up because the immune system is trying to fight off an infection. The increased heat is an attempt to kill off the germs that are trying to make you sick.

If the fever isn't making you or your child uncomfortable, and it's below certain thresholds, you don't need to treat it. When it becomes uncomfortable or exceeds those thresholds, you can use over-the-counter (OTC) fever reducers such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin or Advil (ibuprofen).

If you're using a multi-symptom cold and flu medicine, check the label before giving or taking an OTC fever reducer. Many multi-symptom products contain these medications and doubling-up on them can be dangerous.

You can also use lukewarm washcloths on the forehead and under the arms, although, as with a bath, the effects of this will be temporary.

When a Fever Should Be Evaluated

Most of the time, fevers aren't a cause for concern. A lot of people worry about brain damage from a fever, but the risk of this is only present when one's temperature is higher than 107.6 degrees, which is rare.

Still, a fever warrants medical attention when:

  • It's over 100.4 degrees F in a baby younger than 3 months
  • Breathing problems occur (e.g., wheezing, retracting, labored breathing, blue or gray coloring to the face and lips)
  • Your child won't smile, play, eat, or drink even after taking fever-reducing medication
  • It accompanies neck pain and stiffness
  • A new rash and bruises appear
  • Your child is crying and can't be consoled for an extended period of time (typically an hour or longer)

A Word From Verywell

If you have any concerns about your fever or fever in your child, contact your healthcare provider. You may not need to be seen, but your nurse or doctor can help you figure out the best course of action.

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Article Sources
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  2. Bush LM. Fever in adults. Merck Manual Consumer Version. Updated February 2019.

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  4. Cleveland Clinic. Fever. Updated December 31, 2019.

  5. MedlinePlus. Fever. Updated February 4, 2020.

  6. Cleveland Clinic. Kids' fevers: when to worry, when to relax. 2019.

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