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What the Fuck Is a Fever, Anyway?

Your body is basically trying to bake the sickness away. Pretty cool, huh?

Seeing as a fever is one of the principal coronavirus symptoms, repeatedly touching your forehead (which, stop) and prodding your tongue with a thermometer while pleading to some higher being for that sweet, sweet 98 degrees Fahrenheit is all the rage right now — as is sprinting away from anyone who mentions they feel even slightly warmer than usual. But what the fuck is a fever, anyway, and why does being sick make your body go all toasty? 

A fever is your body attempting to roast the infectious virus or bacteria in your system until they die a humid, sweaty death. “Your body is trying to kill the invaders,” confirms Andrew, a physician in Mississippi. “Heat denatures, or destroys, proteins.”

To be more specific, a fever is caused by chemicals known as pyrogens, which flow through your bloodstream. When you get sick, pyrogens venture to the hypothalamus, a region of your brain that regulates your body temperature, and they bind to receptors to induce a rise in temperature. While most bacteria and viruses do well at your normal body temperature, even a slightly raised temperature can make it much, much harder for them to survive.

As a quick aside, while it might seem intuitive to think you can sweat out a fever — or rather, sweat out those nasty compounds that your fever is massacring — medical professionals hold that there’s no real evidence to suggest that does much of anything, really, except for maybe making you feel uncomfortably hot and yucky. So, if you have a fever, just chill, please.

Now, because fevers are thought to be beneficial in the fight against illness, an ongoing debate among medical professionals is whether you should attempt to lower your fever — especially if you have a low-grade fever — with medications. Aspirin, for instance, can help reduce a fever, but if your fever is helping you defeat your infection, lowering it might not be the right move (of course, if you have a really, really high fever, it needs to be reduced by whatever means possible). This is why Andrew says, “People are telling others to not take NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for low fevers,” which has become especially prevalent as the coronavirus sweeps through the world. In fact, French officials have warned that the likes of ibuprofen, another common NSAID, can actually worsen symptoms of the coronavirus.

The French health ministry guidelines were updated recently to state, “We repeat that the treatment of a fever or of pain linked to COVID-19 or to any other respiratory viral disease should be paracetamol.” In the U.S., paracetamol is commonly known as acetaminophen, or TYLENOL, which is generally thought to be less comprehensive, and comes with fewer side effects, when it comes to reducing inflammation than NSAIDs. (I should also mention, as some health experts have already, that prolonged use of NSAIDs has come under fire recently for the potential negative impacts it could have on underlying health conditions.)

On the flip side, the World Health Organization has opposed the anti-NSAIDs crowd, tweeting that they’re unaware of any real, clinical data against the use of ibuprofen for treating the coronavirus.

Likewise, reactions from the medical community as a whole have been mixed about whether NSAIDs could worsen the coronavirus. Some experts have noted, as they often do (and as the WHO just did), that we need more concrete evidence to say for sure how these drugs interact with the coronavirus in particular — and more broadly, how we should treat fevers.

Again, though, this has been a conversation for a while now. As one fairly comprehensive 2015 study concludes, “Is fever good or bad? Scientifically, we just do not know.” The researchers also note, however, “Maybe the pendulum is due to swing back to a more permissive approach to fever.” In other words, perhaps a careful balance between managing symptoms and letting the fever run its course is a good way to go.

And if the French specialists are correct, now could be a turning point for how we use NSAIDs as fever reducers. In the meantime, though, if you take these kinds of medications regularly, make sure to discuss with your doctor before changing your routine, and if you have a fever, let them know ASAP so they can guide you on how to treat it properly (and please, please stay away from other people, for the love of god).