With seemingly endless options of over-the-counter medications readily accessible, it's easy to reach for something to try to manage just about any symptom the body can create. The seasonal colds and flus that are so common this time of year always come with discomfort, and it is tempting to reach for a pain reliever or anti-inflammatory medication to ease the suffering.
One of the most common experiences with seasonal viral infections, especially for kids, is for the body to develop a fever. Body and muscle aches, headaches, chills and general discomfort almost always accompany this rise in body temperature, so naturally we want to do whatever we can to alleviate this suffering — particularly when we see our kids struggling.
Why does the body create fever? Our intricate and amazingly complex immune systems perform like an orchestra, with many different players working together to address viruses and bacteria in the body. The body's creation of fever is a very intelligent and wise adaptive response that sets into motion a cascade of immune cells and biochemistry designed to fight an infection and bring the body back to health.
A temperature between roughly 100 and 103 degrees is a very effective temperature range for the body to fight infection. White blood cells, your front-line immune defenders, are much more efficient and effective at eliminating microbes at higher temperatures. The heart beats faster with a fever, which also moves immune cells around the body quicker. Further, bacteria and viruses would much prefer the incubator of 98.6 degrees (normal body temperature) and do not do as well at higher fever temperatures.
It is ironic that even though research has supported this biological reality in many studies over the years, providers continue to recommend fever-suppressing drugs like acetaminophen (Tylenol) to bring a fever down as soon as it develops. Just like concerned parents, I think it's a well-meaning attempt to alleviate discomfort and suffering but is nevertheless suppressing one of the body's most ancient and intelligent mechanisms for self-healing.
In my years of treating kids and families, I have noticed a pattern of outcomes when the body is allowed to have its normal fever response, versus when medications are used to suppress fever. While fever-suppressing meds might offer some relief from the discomfort that comes with the process, it is all too common for the infection to drag on longer, taking more days for the body to work through the process to resolution. With acetaminophen use during infection, it is not uncommon for symptoms of sinus congestion, cough, plugged ears, mucous and phlegm and general malaise to take more time to clear up.
A note on Covid: Over the last couple of years, I have cautioned patients about the use of Tylenol (or other acetaminophen-containing medications) during this infection. During the heaviest Delta-variant wave, I noticed some of the worst outcomes and disease progression in patients who were over-using Tylenol to alleviate discomfort. Many went on to develop Covid pneumonia or other serious respiratory issues, and almost all would experience a lengthier Covid infection process. An October 2021 study reviewing the cases of 524 patients concluded that those who were exposed to acetaminophen had "significantly higher odds of being triaged to higher levels of care" experiencing overall worsened outcomes. Those exposed to the most acetaminophen had longer hospital stays, higher mortality rates and higher risk of requiring ventilator support.
Without the use of fever-suppressing medications, what can be done to support the body through an uncomfortable seasonal viral infection? From a holistic medicine perspective there are many options including vitamins and nutrients, herbal and homeopathic medicines, and basics like getting rest and sleep, eating well and avoiding sugar, while staying well-hydrated.
As far as fever goes, a simple Epsom-salt bath, full of magnesium, is helpful for alleviating muscle aches and discomfort. Very simple cold compresses on the head and neck feel great, and if the fever is high, the bathwater can be made to a more lukewarm temperature.
Above all, trust the innate wisdom of your body, whose many intelligent mechanisms for healing — including fever, are always working to bring your body back to a place of balance and health.
—Joshua Phillips, ND is a naturopathic physician and director at Hawthorn Healing Arts Center in Bend. As always, this article is not intended as medical advice, but for informational purposes only. Health concerns should always be addressed with the support of your healthcare provider.