Fever Facts: Why People Get Fevers and How Best to Treat Them
by Allen B. Ury
As a medical assistant, one of your routine jobs will be check your patients' vital signs. This includes taking their temperature.
The average body temperature is 98.6 degrees F. A temperature reading of 99.5 to 100.3 degrees F is considered a low-grade fever. A temperature reading between 100.4 and 104.0 degrees F is a significant fever. And anything above 104 is potentially deadly.
What do fevers indicate? Why we do get them? How are they produced? What damage can they cause, and when/how should they be treated?
Here are the fever facts every medical assistant should know:
- All mammals, including humans, regulate their body temperature. The body's "thermostat" is a part of the brain called the hypothalamus.
- Although a temperature of 98.6 degrees F is considered "normal," some people naturally have slightly higher temperatures, some slightly lower.
- Body temperatures vary depending where the measurement is taken. When taken orally, a reading of 98.2 F is considered "normal." When taken from the rectum, ear or vagina, it's 99.6. From the armpit, it's 97.6 F.
- Because body temperatures vary, doctors usually look for additional signs of illness when diagnosing fevers. Other symptoms often associated with fevers include lethargy, depression, loss of appetite, insomnia and an inability to concentrate.
- The medical term for fever is "pyrexia." (From the Greek "pyro," meaning "fire" or "hot.) A person experiencing a fever is said to be "febrile."
- A fever is usually not a medical condition itself, but is the body's response to invasion by infectious organisms such as bacteria and viruses. Although the actual mechanism is not yet fully understood, many medical experts believe that most infectious organisms have a very limited tolerance for heat, and by raising the body's temperature, the hypothalamus is creating a hostile environment that inhibits the germs' ability to reproduce and spread.
- Although most fevers are caused by infections, they can also be the sign of other medical problems. Alternative causes of fevers include inflammation, vaccines, hormone disorders, blood clots, autoimmune disease, poison and cancer. Fevers can also be caused by trauma, strokes or drugs, both prescription and recreational.
- Traditionally, fevers are brought down in adults by the use of aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol). Aspirin is not recommended for children because of the danger of Reye's Syndrome, which can damage the brain and liver.
- Today, many doctors recommend against treating common fevers because doing so can actually prolong illness preventing the body's natural disease-fighting mechanisms from working properly. Fevers can also be a natural indicator of whether or not the body is responding to other treatments.
- Fevers between 104 and 107 degrees F can cause seizures and even permanent brain damage, especially in children. So it's important to monitor a fever and seek medical attention if temperatures rise too high or remain high for more than three days.
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