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A Fever May Be Good For You


When you or your children get a fever, your first thought may be to take something to bring it down. New research, however, indicates that a fever may be good for you, so you should think twice before dispensing medication.

Cold and flu season often means fever, too

Most parents are familiar with the old adage, “Feed a cold, starve a fever,” which most doctors will tell you not to take literally—starving is not healthful advice. But what is the best course when it comes to a fever?

Researchers at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, report that an elevated body temperature can help certain immune cells function better. More specifically, they found that the generation and differentiation of an immune cell capable of destroying virus-infected cells and tumor cells (CD8+ cytotoxic T cell) is improved by mild fever.

To arrive at this conclusion, the scientists studied two groups of mice, injecting both with an antigen (substance such as bacteria or virus that cause the body to produce antibodies against it) and then followed the activation of T cells. In half of the animals, body temperature was increased by 2 degrees centigrade, while the other half remained at a normal body temperature.

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The mice that had their body temperature raised showed a greater number of CD8+ T-cells, which in turn can destroy infected cells, such as those associated with cold and flu. Therefore, “having a fever might be uncomfortable,” explained John Wherry, PhD, Deputy Editor of the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, which published the study, “but this research report and several others are showing that having a fever is part of an effective immune response.”

A fever is not considered to be medically significant until it reaches higher than 100.4 F. Rest, plenty of fluids, and avoidance of overheating (e.g., don’t overdress) are recommended treatments. Fevers of 104 F or higher, however, should be treated immediately at home (e.g., acetaminophen or ibuprofen; aspirin for adults only) and with subsequent medical attention, especially in infants and young children.

Wherry also noted that this new report “suggests that the immune system might be temporarily enhanced functionally when our temperatures rise with fever,” and that “we may need to reconsider how and when we treat most mild fevers.” So although a high fever can be dangerous, a mild fever may be good for you.

Mace TA et al. Journal of Leukocyte Biology 2011 Nov; 90:951-62

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons