Safe Ways to Treat a Fever

A fever can cause distress, especially if the fever is high or if a young child has a fever. Knowing in advance how to deal with fever can relieve a lot of the stress, and that includes knowing when not to treat it.

This article provides useful guidance on what to do—and what not to do—if an adult or child has a fever. It also explains what signs and symptoms warrant immediate care.

Mother taking daughter’s temperature
Paul Bradbury / Getty Images

Why Do Fevers Occur?

Fever, also known as pyrexia, is an increase in body temperature, often due to an illness. Having a fever is a sign that something in the body is not normal.

A fever can help defend the body against germs that cause it harm, including colds and flu. A higher body temperature often makes it hard for germs to survive. Fevers may also be the result of inflammatory diseases, cancer, or a reaction to certain drugs or vaccines.

What to Do for a Fever

If a fever occurs, there are four standard courses of action you can take.

Try Fever Reducers

An antipyretic is a type of drug used to reduce fever. Antipyretics work quickly to reduce fever and can make you feel better for four to eight hours.

Many can be purchased over the counter, including Tylenol (acetaminophen) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil (ibuprofen).

Most over-the-counter antipyretics can be used in adults and children, but doses will vary. If a child under 3 months of age has a fever, contact a pediatrician before using any fever medication.

Tylenol can be used in children as small as 24 lbs in weight while Advil can be given to children 6 months or older.

Aspirin Warning in Children

Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, aspirin should be avoided in children or teens because it can lead to a potentially deadly condition known as Reye's syndrome.

Hydrate

Drinking plenty of fluids is necessary to avoid dehydration during a fever. The higher the fever, the higher the risk of dehydration. Vomiting and decreased appetite are common during infections and illnesses too—and this can increase the risk of dehydration.

Severe dehydration during a fever can lead to painful cramps, heat exhaustion, seizures, and even a deadly drop in blood pressure.

Drinking chilled fluids can also help bring down a fever. Water and sports drinks are good choices.

Take a Lukewarm Bath

A lukewarm (not hot) bath can help reduce a fever and relax you so you can sleep better.

Be sure to get out of the tub once the water starts to cool. A cold bath may sound like a good idea if you're burning up, but it can cause shivering that can increase—rather than decrease—core body temperature.

Cool Packs Under the Arm

Placing a cooling cloth or cold pack on the forehead is a common way to bring down fever. But if a fever is very high, a better approach may be to place a cold pack under the armpit or in the groin area, where there are larger blood vessels.

Be sure to wrap the cold pack in a cloth to avoid direct contact with the skin. Leave it in place for no longer than 10 to 15 minutes, moving the pack around constantly to avoid frostbite.

What Not to Do

In addition to avoiding cold baths, there are other things you should never do when you have a high fever.

Alcohol Rubdowns

An alcohol rubdown involves rubbing the body in isopropyl alcohol (a.k.a. "rubbing alcohol"), which provides a cooling sensation as it evaporates.

This remedy actually does nothing to reduce fever and may cause shivers. Even worse, the practice can lead to alcohol poisoning as the alcohol is absorbed through the skin. 

Medication Overdosing

Taking high doses of fever medications—or taking them more often than prescribed—does not make them more effective. But it will increase is the risk of side effects.

Taking high doses of NSAIDs can lead to stomach upset and gastric bleeding. Taking too much Tylenol can harm the liver. In fact, Tylenol overdose is especially dangerous for kids.

Overlooking Product Labels

Before using any medication, be sure to read the product label. This is especially true with multi-symptom cold & flu remedies that often contain acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Taking a separate dose of either of these drugs too close to the multi-symptom treatment can result in overdosing.

Also, check if the product contains salicylates. Salicylates are a class of drugs used to reduce inflammation. Aspirin is the most common example.

Cold & flu remedies containing salicylate should be used with extreme caution in children and teens with fever due to the risk of Reye's syndrome.

When to See a Doctor

A high fever can be scary. You may be unsure if it's time to get emergency medical attention or if it's OK to wait and see how things progress. In the end, the rules vary by age group.

Adults

For adults, seek immediate care for a fever of 103 degrees F or more with symptoms such as:

  • Severe headache
  • Severe stomach pain
  • Constant vomiting
  • Trouble breathing
  • Stiff neck
  • Light sensitivity
  • Chest pain
  • Pain with urination
  • Inability to urinate
  • Unusual rash
  • Mental confusion
  • Seizures

Children Over Age 2

Fevers in children are common. There is usually no cause for alarm as long as the child's behavior is normal.

You should seek immediate care if the:

  • Fever has lasted more than four or five days
  • Child is less responsive than usual or has poor eye contact with you.
  • Fever is accompanied by severe headache, fatigue, vomiting, or other troubling symptoms
  • Child has a fever after having been left in a hot car

Infants and Babies (Up to Age 2)

For infants and babies, an unexplained fever is always a concern. Seek immediate care if an infant younger than 3 months of age develops any fever, if the child is not acting like themselves, or if you are concerned.

If in doubt as to whether a fever is serious or not, always err on the side of caution and either call a doctor or visit the nearest urgent care center or emergency room.

Summary

Fever can be treated with over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol or Advil, lukewarm baths, and plenty of fluids. You can consider using cold packs (not to exceed 15 minutes at a time) if a fever is especially high.

Never use cold baths, alcohol rubdowns, or more than the prescribed dose of any fever medication.

Aspirin should not be used for children or teens due to the risk of Reye syndrome.

Knowing when it is time to call a doctor can be confusing since the rules vary by a person's age. If in doubt, seek medical advice to be on the safe side.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What temperature constitutes a fever?

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a true fever as a temperature of 100.4 degrees F or higher.

  • How long does it take for a fever to resolve?

    Fevers usually resolve within one to three days. Fevers lasting longer than one day in babies or three days in children age two and over should be evaluated by a doctor, especially if there are accompanying symptoms such as a rash, severe headache, vomiting, stiff neck, or confusion.

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