Fighting the Fever: Good or Bad?

By on January 31, 2014

Whenever we get sick, controlling the fever becomes a primary concern. For centuries, people have been reducing fevers by natural remedies and man-made medications. With these discoveries comes the debate over whether reducing fevers is actually in our best interest. Research published in the 1970s indicated that fevers may prevent pathogens from reproducing, thus protecting both sick individuals and anyone with whom they come in contact. Recent research has found that current use of fever-suppressing medications may be responsible for at least 1% of cases of the flu, because sick individuals more readily spread the virus.

A new nontraditional study affirms the benefits of fevers. Instead of collecting experimental data, researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, modeled the effects of fever suppression in a population. Based on the research conducted in 1975, they operated under the assumption that suppressing a fever results in the sick individual shedding more virus particles. This would make the individuals more infectious to others around them. The researchers then considered current use of fever-reducing medications.

The model indicates that use of fever-reducing medications leads to at least an additional 1% of cases of the flu, as sick individuals infect more people than they would have without medication. This extra 1% equates to roughly 700 deaths that may not have occurred if fever-suppressing medications had not been used.

This effect is more prominent in viruses that are more difficult to transmit. The model showed that, for these viruses, suppressing fevers could result in 5% more cases and an additional 2,000 deaths. Yet, these numbers may be on the low end. The team of researchers did not factor in situations in which patients feel well enough to go out in public despite still being infectious. Some medications help patients achieve this state, which could result in the sick individual infecting numerous others.

While these findings alone are not enough to determine whether fevers should be reduced or not, they do establish a need for further research. This study revolves around research that used ferrets, not people. Until more research is done using humans and human data, there is no way to know how well the findings translate. Furthermore, epidemiologist Gérard Krause notes that people may not be more infectious if they shed more virus particles. This assumption was another major belief of the study.

Despite uncertainty, it is clear that there needs to be more research done to determine whether fever suppression is good or bad. This study shows that fevers may no longer be personal. Potentially, fevers could provide protection to the entire population by preventing pathogens from reproducing and spreading.

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