Can I Use Rubbing Alcohol to Bring Down a Fever?

Folk medicine remedies for reducing a temperature abound.

One, in particular, has made the rounds for years: applying rubbing alcohol (isopropanol) to the skin with a washcloth or cotton ball. If you're tempted to try it, you should reconsider. This purported remedy is ineffective as well as dangerous.

This article explains why rubbing alcohol does not reduce a fever and the dangers it could cause. It also explains how fever is often treated and when to see a healthcare provider.

mother using cloth to wipe feverish daughter's forehead
kwanchaichaiudom / Getty Images

Why It Doesn't Work

Rubbing alcohol evaporates rapidly after it's applied to the skin. In fact, this is exactly the problem: As it evaporates, it cools the skin too quickly, which can cause chills and make you shiver. This response signals the body that you're cold, causing it to turn up your "internal thermostat" even higher.

The bigger point is that cooling the skin doesn't do anything to lower the body's temperature. So while rubbing alcohol may provide an immediate cooling sensation, it's a fleeting comfort, at best. If you or your child is uncomfortable because of a fever, doctors recommend a lukewarm bath—without alcohol—to provide short-term relief.

This article explains the safety concerns surrounding the use of rubbing alcohol and fevers. It also suggests effective ways to treat a fever and when a healthcare provider should be consulted.

Fever Defined

In children and adults, a fever is defined as 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit when measured by an oral thermometer.

Safety Concerns

To make matters worse, alcohol is easily absorbed, both through the skin and through the lungs, when it's inhaled. In the worst cases, the absorption can cause alcohol poisoning and lead to a coma or other serious medical complications.

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, when vital functions between the brain and spinal cord slow down
  • Shock
  • Slowed breathing

Fevers Rally a Fight

A fever is not an illness; it's a symptom. It's a sign that your body is fighting an illness or infection.

Treating a Fever

Not all fevers need to be treated. Your body temperature goes up because the immune system is trying to kill germs that are attempting to make you sick. It may be a different matter if a fever is making you or your child uncomfortable. If your child registers a temperature of 99 degrees or above, you can ease their discomfort by:

  • Dressing them in light clothing
  • Offering plenty of liquids or soothing foods like gelatin and ice pops
  • Placing a cool washcloth on the child's forehead while they rest or sleep
  • Giving the child a lukewarm sponge or tub bath
  • Offering Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen) if your pediatrician says it's OK (though the latter is not recommended in children under 6 months old)

Adults would be wise to follow the same advice. But for them, rest is especially important if their fever registers 102 degrees or above. Keeping your home at a cooler temperature or running a fan may help, too.

Infections Trigger Fever

Respiratory or gastrointestinal infections are responsible for triggering most fevers in otherwise healthy adults.

When a Fever Should Be Evaluated

Most of the time, fevers aren't a cause for concern. Some people worry about brain damage from a fever, but the risk of this is present when a temperature is higher than 107.6 degrees, which is rare. A fever generally warrants medical attention when it reaches:

  • 100.4 degrees in a baby 3 months old or younger (call a pediatrician immediately)
  • 102.2 degrees or higher in a baby 3 months to 3 years old
  • 104 degrees or higher repeatedly in an older child or adult

It's also a good idea to get medical attention if a fever lasts more than 24 hours in a child under 2 years old or more than 72 hours in an older child or adult.

Longevity Provides a Clue

When a fever lasts several days or more, doctors are inclined to look hard at any disorders as a possible cause. Those that undermine the immune system are often the culprit, including arthritis and diabetes.


Heed Fever Symptoms

Keep in mind that fevers can be as fleeting as they can be misleading. So pay attention not only to the number on the thermometer but to how you or your child are feeling. It's not uncommon for a high temperature to disappear as quickly as it appeared while a lower temperature accompanied by other symptoms could be a sign of illness—and a reason to call the doctor.

So in a child, be alert for:

  • Breathing difficulty/shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Diarrhea or vomiting
  • Earache (or a sign of it, such as tugging on the ear)
  • Fewer wet diapers or infrequent urination
  • Fussiness
  • Severe headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pale or flushed skin
  • Stiff neck
  • Unexplained rash

Except for the wet diapers, you may feel some of these symptoms yourself, in which case a call to your doctor is a good idea. Add other warning signs of illness to your list:

  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Fainting (or even the sensation of almost fainting)
  • Pain or pressure in the chest
  • Severe sinus pain
  • Swollen glands in the neck or jaw

Summary

It would be like magic if it worked, but it doesn't: Simply applying rubbing alcohol to the skin to reduce a fever. While it's true that the alcohol can instantly cool the skin, it actually works too quickly. This response signals the body that you're cold, causing it to turn up your "internal thermostat" even higher.

To make matters worse, alcohol is easily absorbed, both through the skin and through the lungs when it's inhaled. And the result can be toxic, potentially causing alcohol poisoning. All this fuss over alcohol isn't worth it, especially when you consider that a number of other soothing remedies that have stood the test of time really can lower a fever.

A Word From Verywell

The average body temperature is 98.6 degrees, but a "normal" body temperature can vary from one person to another. Body temperature can also go up or down during the day, usually increasing after exercise or a meal. This is why it's smart to take your temperature (or your child's) several times a day while you're fighting a fever. And expect fluctuations. They're perfectly normal, too.

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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