Do You Really Starve It? (and everything else you really want to know about fevers)


    1) Is it true that you’re supposed to “feed a cold, starve a fever?”

           In a word, no!  In the 1500’s, it was theorized that digesting food would speed up your metabolism, increase the heat inside your body, and raise your temperature.  So it became a common practice to fast if you had a fever so you didn’t raise your temperature higher.  But thanks to modern science, we now know that fasting doesn’t improve fevers at all.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Your body needs more fuel during an illness because your immune system needs extra energy to fight off the infection.

    2)  Can a fever really fry your brain?

          Technically…..the answer is “yes.”  But your temperature has to climb above 107 degrees to begin causing brain damage.  In order to reach temperatures that high, people usually have to have extenuating circumstances -- like being trapped in a hot car, or excessively bundled while running a fever.  The overwhelming majority of fevers don’t get close to being able to “fry” your brain.

     3)  If you have a fever, are you supposed to “sweat it out?”

          It used to be common practice to bundle up children who had fevers because it was believed that breaking into a sweat would "break" a fever, bringing the temperature down to normal.  But that’s not true!  Bundling up only helps drive the core body temperature higher.  And breaking into a sweat doesn’t actually break” a fever.  It’s better to wear light, breathable clothes, take cool baths or use cool compresses to bring a fever down.

     4) What’s the technical definition of a fever?

         A fever is a core body temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.  Even if your body temperature usually runs lower, you’re technically not considered to have a fever unless you’re above 100.4.

     5)  What are the benefits of taking fever-reducing medicine?

          In addition to making you feel more comfortable by reducing the skin sensitivity, headache and body aches that fevers cause, fever reducers also prevent you from getting dehydrated, because the hotter your skin is, the faster water evaporates from its surface.

     6) Is it true that high fevers can cause seizures in children?  

         It’s true that children under 5 can suffer a “febrile seizure.”  But what causes febrile seizures is not how high the temperature gets, but how fast it climbs.  So giving children a fever-reducing medicine before their fever rapidly escalates can prevent them from having a seizure.  It’s also important to note that if a child of any age suffers a seizure while febrile, they need to be taken to a medical facility ASAP to be evaluated for life-threatening infections that can cause a febrile child to seize (like meningitis).


If you or a family member has a fever, we’re here to care for you seven days a week at each of our six Bay Area locations.  You can book an appointment online, or simply walk in.

Sarah Thebarge MMSc, PA-C Sarah Thebarge earned her physician assistant degree at Yale School of Medicine, and then studied journalism at Columbia School of Journalism. She has been a physician assistant and a freelance journalist since 2004. In addition to caring for patients at Golden Gate Urgent Care, Sarah frequently volunteers her medical skills in the developing world. Her writing has appeared in Huffington Post, USA Today and National Geographic, and her blog was featured on She is the author of the memoir The Invisible Girls and the upcoming book WELL: Healing our Beautiful, Broken World from a Hospital in West Africa. She currently lives in the Mission District of San Francisco.

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