Soothe a fever
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Dr Morton's
the medical helpline©

Soothe a fever

Soothe a fever

Many illnesses cause a high temperature ranging from the most serious for example meningitis down to the common cold

  • understand the cause
  • access the right treatment
  • speed recovery and ease symptoms

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Dr Morton's Test Kit© for the Paul Bunnell test for glandular fever

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A high temperature usually means infection

Fever in adults is defined as a body temperature of over 38°C. At home this is best measured using a tympanic membrane thermometer (a thermometer designed to be placed into the ear). Estimating body temperature with forehead strips or a hand held against the forehead is likely to be inaccurate and therefore unhelpful.

Body temperature naturally varies at times for example in menstruating women it is generally lower in the two weeks before ovulation rising by around 1°C with ovulation.

Infections are by far the most common cause of fever and they are broadly classified into viral and bacterial.

Viral infections for example glandular fever, viral meningitis, colds and flu usually have no specific treatment. It is important to establish the diagnosis correctly and then manage the symptoms whilst the body’s natural immunity fights off the infection. A general characteristic of viral infections is that they cause fevers which swing up and down so that you feel cold and shivery one minute and hot and sweaty the next.

Swollen glands usually means there is infection in the organ that drains lymph to that gland. For example, tonsillitis leads to swollen glands under the jaw; cellulite in a leg leads to swollen glands in the groin.

Glandular fever symptoms are typically a combination of high swinging fever, swollen glands in the neck, and pain on turning and sensitive pain in the abdomen, as the liver can become inflamed.

Bacterial infections for example kidney infections, scarlet fever, bacterial meningitis, and sepsis (blood poisoning) require treatment with antibiotics. Serious bacterial infections can occasionally be rapidly life-threatening so accurate assessment and diagnosis is vital to ensure the correct treatment is given promptly. Having said that, some minor bacterial infections will get better on their own. This is because the body’s natural immunity is equipped to fight simple infections effectively. A general characteristic of bacterial infections is that they cause a sustained high fever (high temperature) rather than the fluctuating fever commonly seen with viral infections.

Other things can cause fever such as medication, tumours (cancer), hyperthermia, immunisations, extreme sunburn and some autoimmune conditions such as lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus or SLE).

Symptoms

  • hot sweats
  • feeling flushed
  • cold sweats
  • lethargy
  • rapid breathing
  • loss of appetite
  • thirst
  • passing less urine than usual

Other conditions can give similar symptoms such as

  • lupus
  • medication reaction
  • cancer

When you should contact a doctor

You should contact a doctor if you have a temperature and

  • a rash
  • headache or stiff neck
  • the light bothers you
  • pain on passing urine
  • feeling muddled or confused
  • difficulty in breathing or chest pain
  • if you have recently travelled abroad to an area where there is malaria, dengue fever, Ebola, avian (bird) flu or SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), typhoid or yellow fever

Available treatments

Treatment is divided into treatment of the underlying cause and relief of the symptoms. Antibiotics may be required. All medicines should be used cautiously because there may be side-effects or allergic reactions or simply 'consequences' such as developing a yeast infection following antibiotics. There is also the potential problem of antibiotic resistance which is exacerbated by their indiscriminate usage.

Symptoms of fever are treated mainly with simple home remedies. For example medicines to help bring the temperature down like paracetamol, aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) plus so called supportive measures like drinking plenty of fluids, wearing loose clothing or light bedding and resting. Often the cause is infectious so measures to prevent the spread of infection are very important. These can be as simple as staying at home, washing your hands and binning used tissues or more complex such as isolation or barrier nursing.

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