by Julie Lachman
When a child is sick and uncomfortable with a fever, a parent’s natural instinct is to make him or her feel better. What many parents do not know is that some of the most common therapeutics for fever can actually sideline recovery.
Fever is the body’s normal response to invasion by bacteria or viruses. Animals will sit in the sun when sick, and fish will swim in warmer water. The ability to mount a strong fever is a good sign. The common cold virus (rhinovirus) can live only at the temperature of the nose, which is why it can’t invade further into the body—it’s too hot. The simple process of heating the body kills germs. Fevers also cause the body to be achy—so we stay put and rest—and have a diminished appetite.
MYTH #1: When sick with fever, it’s important to keep our strength by eating, even if we’re not hungry.
Truth: Animals don’t eat when they’re sick. Why? If the body has to send blood to the stomach, there is less focus on attacking the virus or bacteria. Also, bacteria need iron to replicate, so eating may feed them as well. If a child is feeling somewhat better, but perhaps still slightly feverish, feeding him may cause the fever and illness to return that night. Restricting food for one more night gives the body a chance to finish the job. To shorten the duration of illness, never feed someone until the fever is below 99.6 degrees Fahrenheit and the person is hungry.
MYTH #2: High fevers may cause seizures or brain damage, which can be devastating.
Truth: There have been no studies linking high fevers with any permanent damage. Hyperthermia from sunstroke can cause coma or delirium, but this is very different from a fever, which is a normal response to infection. While it is true that two to four percent of children may develop simple febrile seizures, these seizures—though scary—have no long-term effects and do not increase the likelihood of seizure disorders (epilepsy). In fact, even temperatures of 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit do not cause any brain injury. If the sick person is not made to eat, the fever shouldn’t need to go that high anyway. By reducing the fever, the child will have decreased ability to fight the infection and an altered immune system.
MYTH #3: Acetaminophen (commonly sold as Tylenol) is safe during fevers or when used to prevent fevers commonly associated with vaccinations.
Truth: Acetaminophen lowers fever by stopping some of the normal pathways associated with feverish diseases, and it also stops some of the normal immune functioning. Recent research published in the British journal The Lancet revealed that children who received this drug with vaccinations had their immune system so affected by the drug that they had lower levels of immunity to the vaccinated diseases than children who didn’t receive the drug. When a child is sick with a bacteria or virus, or is getting vaccinated, the last thing we want to do is lower his immunity. Additionally, the risk for side effects increases when a child is sick due to dehydration and undernutrition.
What’s a parent to do? To help a child recover quickly from illness, supporting rather than suppressing the fever is the answer. Keep the child comfortable with cool compresses to the forehead and plenty of clear, no-sugar beverages and fresh soup broths. Sugar decreases the function of the immune system by half for five to seven hours, so never give soda to a sick child. Be sure to keep him warm if he’s chilly. Let his body do the tough work of destroying the bacteria quickly, so he can be back to feeling like himself sooner.
Julie Lachman, ND, is a Bucks County native and licensed Naturopath with a practice in Doylestown. Connect with her at DrLachman.com. August 2014.