HomeHealth ConditionsFever

How to Break a Fever and Whether or Not You Should

Kerry R. McGee, MD, FAAPSophie Vergnaud, MD
Updated on March 24, 2022

Key takeaways:

  • Fevers are often caused by an infection in the body.

  • Although they are uncomfortable, fevers themselves are not usually harmful and can have some benefits.

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medications used to break a fever can make you feel better. But they won’t cure the illness that caused the fever in the first place.

A father holding with his daughter on his lap at the kitchen table talking to the doctor on a telehealth visit. He is feeling her forehead as he reads the thermometer.
Geber86/E+ via Getty Images

It can feel uncomfortable or even painful to have a fever. When you’re sick and your body temperature rises, you might flip between feeling hot and feeling cold — and between shivering and sweating — at a moment’s notice. 

So, what should you do when you have a fever? Should you try to break it, or put up with the discomfort? It turns out that while a fever can be an important sign of illness, it isn’t usually a problem on its own. Keep reading to learn how to break a fever — and whether or not you should. 

What is a fever?

The normal human body temperature falls between about 97 and 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit (36.2 and 37.5 degrees Celsius). When your body heats itself up warmer than that, you have a fever.

Fever is usually caused by inflammation in your body. Typically, the inflammation comes from an infection, like the flu or strep throat. But immune-related diseases, cancer, and even some medications can cause a fever, too.

How a fever works

When there is a lot of Inflammation in your body, your immune system releases chemicals that turn up the set-point of your internal thermostat. This makes your body act in certain ways to make itself warmer. For example, a fever causes chills (shivers) because your body is trying to warm itself up — even though you’re not actually cold.

Over-the-counter (OTC) fever reducers work by interrupting the chemical signals that connect inflammation in your body to your internal thermostat. 

How to Break a Fever

Medications that stop or break a fever are called antipyretics. Many are available OTC without a prescription. 

There are prescription medications, such as indomethacin (Indocin), that can also lower a fever. But they aren’t usually used for breaking a fever. 

OTC medications that help break a fever

OTC antipyretics include:

Home remedies to bring down a fever

Many people try to treat fevers by cooling the outside of the body. This is done by:

  • Giving a sponge bath

  • Taking a cool shower

  • Removing warm clothing or blankets

  • Rubbing alcohol on the skin

But cooling the outside of the body isn’t always a good idea. While it might bring the measured temperature down slightly, surface cooling doesn’t affect the temperature deep inside the body (the core temperature). In fact, this can cause the core temperature to rise even higher in response — which can feel quite unpleasant and make shivering worse. 

Should you break a fever?

It’s natural to want your fever to go away. But treating a fever doesn’t stop the infection that caused it — all it does is bring your temperature down. Even so, you might want to break your fever because:

  • A fever can make you feel low.

  • An extremely high fever (105 degrees or above) can cause damage to the body.

  • A fever can cause dehydration. This is because a higher body temperature makes the water in your breath and on your skin evaporate faster.

  • Fevers can make some people more likely to get a seizure.

Does a fever have any benefits?

It seems likely that fevers happen for a biological reason. After all, when we’re fighting an infection, our body uses extra energy to heat itself up — and this is true across many animal species. But why? 

We don’t know have a full understanding yet, but here’s what scientists have learned so far:

Aside from these natural benefits, fevers are helpful from a practical standpoint because:

  • The pattern of your fever can give clues about the illness that might be causing it. In other words, it can help you track whether infection is getting better or worse.

  • Many of our modern antibiotics work better at warmer temperatures.

What should I do if I have a fever?

While a fever isn’t always harmful, that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. After all, the fever is probably caused by an infection, and some infections can be serious.

There can be times when a fever requires medical attention. See a healthcare provider right away if:

  • An infant under 3 months old has a fever over 100.3 degrees.

  • An infant 3 to 12 months old has a fever above 102.2 degrees.

  • A child has a fever, and is unvaccinated.

  • You have a very high fever (105 degrees or higher).

  • You have had a fever for more than 3 days in a row.

  • You have a fever plus other symptoms, like weight loss, rash, cough, or difficulty breathing, that you can’t explain.

  • You’ve recently had surgery.

  • You have a fever and are immunosuppressed, have an immune deficiency, or are receiving chemotherapy.

  • You have an IV line, such as a PICC line, port, or central venous catheter.

  • You take drugs recreationally through an IV.

In general, if you have a fever, it’s best to stay home. Your infection could be contagious to others. In fact, it’s possible that the unpleasant feelings that come with a fever have an evolutionary cause: It makes you want to isolate yourself, which helps protect people around you.

The bottom line

Whether or not you choose to break a fever is up to you. While a fever can make you feel low, there might be good reasons to let a fever run its course. If you do choose to break your fever, antipyretic medications are effective — but remember, they won’t treat the infection that’s to blame. 

While medication can help lower your temperature and relieve symptoms, it’s important to know when to get medical attention. This way, a healthcare provider can identify and treat the illness that may be causing your fever, and prevent further complications.

References

Belon, L., et al. (2021). Effect of a fever in viral infections - The 'Goldilocks' phenomenon? World Journal of Clinical Cases.

Evans, S. S., et al. (2015). Fever and the thermal regulation of immunity: the immune system feels the heat. Nature Reviews. Immunology.

View All References (6)

Hajdu, S., et al. (2010). Increased temperature enhances the antimicrobial effects of daptomycin, vancomycin, tigecycline, fosfomycin, and cefamandole on staphylococcal biofilms. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

Marui, S., et al. (2017). Assessment of axillary temperature for the evaluation of normal body temperature of healthy young adults at rest in a thermoneutral environment. Journal of Physiological Anthropology.

MedlinePlus. (2022). Fever.

Meremikwu, M., et al. (2003). Physical methods for treating fever in children. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Walter, E. J., et al. (2016). The pathophysiological basis and consequences of fever. Critical care.

Wrotek, S., et al. (2020). Let fever do its job: The meaning of fever in the pandemic era. Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health.

GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.

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