Hello and Happy New Year,
I know a lot of folks are sick right now. Or just getting over being sick, or possibly just about to get sick… : ( If so, I’m sorry for the discomfort you are in!
I sometimes hear my patients talking about catching a cold or flu like it’s a personal failure. And conversely, I have met many folks who have not been sick for years and take this as a sign of good health.
If you’ve been thinking this way… Whelp, I’m here to blow your mind.
Getting a cold once or twice per year or a flu every five to 10 years is actually a very good thing. Here’s why:
A Sign of a Functional Immune System
When you catch an infectious illness like a cold or flu, it’s actually not the virus causing your symptoms. It’s your immune system. Your body pumps out white blood cells to fight the infection, and those white blood cells make chemical messengers called cytokines to communicate with each other, to help fight the invader and to attempt to get you to rest and allow yourself to heal (These days, many people don’t listen to their immune system’s cues…).
Those cytokines make you feel tired and grumpy, increase the activity of your immune cells, stimulate a fever and more. Your immune system is doing this for a reason. It wants to you to sit down and conserve energy so it can do the work of fighting off the invader.
The Benefits of a Fever are Many and Varied
A higher body temperature actually helps your immune cells work more efficiently while inhibiting the growth of infectious organisms. Additionally, a fever results in increased heart rate and thinner blood, thereby helping to flush out infectious substances and other waste.
There was a study done in a hospital on people with fevers due to sepsis (a life threatening blood infection) comparing the rates of death between one group whose fever was continuously lowered with acetaminophen (Tylenol) to a second group who were allowed to have a fever as long as it did not get dangerously high.1 There was a dramatic increase in the rate of death among people given Tylenol to lower their fever. The study was actually halted early due to this finding. Now, more research is certainly needed. Other studies on sheep and rats resulted in similar findings while a study that simply compared medical records from cases of sepsis that were treated with Tylenol or not did not find the same result.2 However, this idea that fever is an important factor in allowing your body to efficiently fight infection tallies with over a hundred years of practice of naturopathic medicine.
Killing Cancer Before it Begins
Fevers also help kill off cancerous or pre-cancerous cells. Though it may sound scary, we all constantly have cells that sustain damage and become pre-cancerous or cancerous. Our immune systems do a brilliant job most of the time of nipping these in the bud, but it takes a functional immune system to perform this task.
If you have not been sick in years, it’s not that you’ve never “caught a cold”. It may actually be that your immune system is not strong enough to mount a response to any viruses you are exposed to, and therefore you don’t get symptoms when you catch a virus. If you are one of these people, it is in your best interest to work on improving your immune function. This is the best way to help prevent cancer down the road. Cancer is, at its core, a disease of low immune function.
Immune System Education
Fever is not a common symptom of a cold, but catching a cold once in a while still serves as education for your immune system. Think of it like exercise for your white blood cells. They get to be active, get educated on what viruses are present in your environment, and produce antibodies to those viruses so that you are protected in the future.
A Chance for Your Body to “Clean House”
Our bodies are constantly in the process of eliminating waste products, whether they are byproducts of normal cellular functioning like carbon dioxide, or environmental chemicals that we are all exposed to daily. We have many routes of elimination for these toxins including through your poop, urine, sweat and breath. During a cold, most of us can add large quantities of mucus to the list of routes of elimination. During a fever, increased sweating also serves this purpose.
How to Team Up with your Immune System for Better Health
Over time, most conventional treatments like flu shots, antibiotics and fever reducing medications suppress the immune system, while natural therapies work by enhancing it.
As a side note, study after study has shown that the flu shot is not nearly as effective as we are led to believe. Though it varies by year, the 2017/2018 flu shot is estimated to have an efficacy rate of around 10%.
Getting sick totally stinks, but I hope this article will help you to start to see things a little differently. When you do get sick, I encourage you to try to look past the discomfort and see the truth. Your body is making a wise choice that will ultimately benefit your health. When I am working with someone with a severe chronic illness, I know we are on the right track when they get a fever. It tells me their immune system is becoming functional again.
If you are getting colds or the flu more than two times per year, this is a sign that your immune system is functional enough to mount an attack on an invader, but not efficient enough to prevent you from catching the majority of bugs that go around. In this case, you would benefit from some immune support and investigation to discover why your immune system is sluggish.
You can work with your body and your immune system to help it do its job so that you recover quickly and actually emerge healthier than you were before.
Here are my Top 6 Tips to Make Friends with your Immune System.
Do your best to listen to those cues of feeling tired and grouchy. Stay home and sleep. Your co-workers will thank you for not spreading the germs, and your immune system will thank you by helping you recover faster.
2. Stay Hydrated
Your body will be better equipped to maintain a productive and safe fever, and cool you down as needed if you are well hydrated. One of the greatest dangers during a fever is dehydration.
3. Fast During a Fever
Most people don’t have an appetite when they have a fever. This is your body’s wisdom at work. Listen to it and don’t eat until your appetite returns. If you’re hungry, stick to broths and well cooked vegetables until you feel well again. Additionally, eating during a fever can confuse your immune system and actually put you at risk of the fever getting too high.
4. Avoid Sugar, Dairy, Orange Juice and Meat During a Cold.
Even if you don’t have a fever, these foods are not your immune system’s friend during a viral illness. Do yourself a favor and avoid them. Each time you eat sugar, your immune system is actively suppressed for about 6 hour afterward. Dairy makes your mucus more sticky and tenacious, which makes it harder to clear out. Orange juice has too much sugar, and also increases mucus production, and meat takes a lot of energy to digest and your body would much rather direct that energy elsewhere to help you recover faster.
5. Tepid Baths
If your fever gets up to 104 °F, it’s a good idea to get in a tepid bath (98-100° F water) until the fever has reduced to 101° or 102°. The risk of neurological damage from fever starts above 105° F.
6. When in Doubt, Schedule a Visit
The flu in particular can be nasty and can sometime result in complications. Working with your naturopathic doctor, acupuncturist or other functional medicine minded provider can reduce risk of complications and aid in speedy recovery. When in doubt, see a doctor!
When to Seek Medical Care for a Fever
Call 911 if the Person is:
- Wheezing or having difficulty breathing
- Having convulsions or seizures
- A Child with a first time febrile seizure. - Although scary to witness, febrile seizures generally don’t affect a child’s long term health. That said, bring your child in to urgent care or the emergency room to be assessed following their fist seizure.
- Appearing blue in the lips
- Speaking in a confused or altered way
Seek Emergency Medical Care if the Person Has:
- Symptoms of meningitis: Severe headache, stiff neck, sudden onset of rash and/or changes in cognition or mental functioning can point to a life-threatening infection. Go to the hospital!
- A temperature of 105° F or higher - this is the threshold above which brain damage can occur.
When to See your Doctor:
- Newborns (0-3 months) with a fever of 100.5° F or higher - Teething won't cause a fever above 100.5°.
- Infants or children with a fever of 104° F or higher that doesn’t respond to fever reducing therapies like a tepid bath.
- Fever in children lasting more than 3 days.
- Adults with a fever or 101.0° F or higher that lasts for longer than three days or is getting worse.
- Adults with fever of 100.5° F that lasts longer than three weeks without other symptoms.
- Elders with urinary symptoms, shortness of breath or any sign of infection, regardless of whether they have a fever. - Elderly folks are much less likely to develop a fever for any reason, even during serious illness.
- If you are unable to stay hydrated during a fever - Signs of dehydration include sunken eyes, dry mouth or lips, or skin tenting (if you pinch the skin on the back of the hand and it doesn't spring back into place instantly.) In kids you may notice fewer wet diapers.
- Severe pain in the lower abdomen
- Severe stomach pain with vomiting or severe diarrhea
- Pain with urination, back pain or shaking/chills
- Symptoms of sinus, ear, lung or other infection.
- Symptoms of strep throat such as severe sore throat, high fever, swollen lymph nodes, skin rash, enlarged tonsils or drooling.
- If you’re unsure or want tailored support for a speedy recovery
Wishing you a healthy winter,
- Schulman CI, Namias N, Doherty J, et al. The Effect of Antipyretic Therapy upon Outcomes in Critically Ill Patients: A Randomized, Prospective Study. Surg Infect (Larchmt). 2005;6(4):369-375. doi:10.1089/sur.2005.6.369.
- Mohr N, Skrupky L, Fuller B, et al. Early antipyretic exposure does not increase mortality in patients with gram-negative severe sepsis: A retrospective cohort study. Intern Emerg Med. 2012;7(5):463-470. doi:10.1007/s11739-012-0848-z.