Safe Ways to Treat a Fever

A fever can cause distress, especially if the fever is high or it is a child who has the fever. Knowing in advance how to deal with fever can relieve a lot of the stress, and that includes knowing when to 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. By raising the body temperature, these germs are less able to survive. Fevers may also be the result of an 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 aspirin or 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 young as 2 months, while Advil can be used in those as young as 6 months.

Aspirin Warning in Children

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

Hydrate

Drinking plenty of fluids is needed to avoid dehydration during a fever. As a rule, the higher the fever, the higher the risk of dehydration.

Severe dehydration during a fever can lead to severe 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 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.

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.

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.

Recap

Taking an over-the-counter fever reducer, soaking in a lukewarm bath, and placing cool packs under your arms can help bring a fever down. Drink lots of fluids both to help reduce a fever and prevent dehydration.

What Not to Do

In addition to avoiding cold baths, there are other things you should never do if faced with a sudden or high fever.

Alcohol Rubdowns

An alcohol rubdown is a home remedy that has been used for generations to treat fever. This 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 only serve to 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. The only thing it will increase is the risk of side effects.

Taking high doses of NSAIDs can lead to stomach upset and gastric bleeding, while taking too much Tylenol can harm the liver. In fact, Tylenol overdose is one of the more common reasons why kids are rushed to the emergency room each year.

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 fever and pain. Aspirin is the most common example.

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

Recap

Avoid putting rubbing alcohol on the skin. This may be a long-standing home remedy, but it has the potential to do more harm than good when it comes to your fever. In addition, never take more than the prescribed dose of fever medications, and avoid giving children/teens aspirin unless directed by a doctor.

When to See a Doctor

A high fever can be scary. You may be unsure if it's time to rush to emergency 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 if there is 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 is responsive.

On the other hand, you should seek immediate care if the:

  • Fever has lasted more than three days
  • Child is non-responsive 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 of concern. Seek immediate care if:

  • A child under 3 months has a rectal temperature of 100.4 degrees F or more.
  • A child between 3 and 6 months has a rectal temperature of 102.2 degrees F or more.
  • A child between 6 and 24 months has a rectal temperature or 102.2 degrees F or more for longer than one day without any other symptoms. If there are symptoms, seek immediate care.

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, plenty of fluids, and cold packs if a fever is especially high.

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

Aspirin should be used with extreme caution in children or teens with fever 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 greater.

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

    Fevers usually resolve within one to three days. Fevers lasting longer than this should be evaluated at by a doctor, especially if there are accompanying symptoms such as a rash, severe headache, vomiting, stiff neck, or confusion.

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