Fever appears to rev up the immune system

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Let’s imagine you’re walking around barefoot and stub your big toe hard on the leg of a table. It hurts. That’s a pain (quite literally), but at least it’s telling you you’ve done something you might want to avoid doing too often. And should that pain persist in the form of inflammation, there’s a chance you are going to be a bit more protective of that toe while it heals. Look at it like that, and there’s an argument for seeing pain as a positive thing.

This is a simple example of how the body generates symptoms that, while inconvenient, are to the betterment of the body and the healing process. Another example is fever.

One of the normal symptoms and signs of infection is raised body temperature. I’ve read and been told several times that fever ‘helps the immune system do its job’, and there now appears to be some evidence that this is indeed the case. In a study published recently in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, higher body temperature in mice was found to lead to greater numbers of cells known as CD8+ T cells that have the ability to kill cells infected with a virus (as well as tumour cells) [1].

This study was done in mice, but there’s a fair chance, I’d say, that similar immune enhancement would be found in we humans if we were to look.

Fever might make us feel uncomfortable, but it may well have benefits in terms of combating an infection. And if that’s the case, then perhaps we need to think carefully before we reach for the paracetamol (acetaminophen) to bring down the heat.

Very high fever can be hazardous to health, and this is particularly the case in children who may suffer from what are known as ‘febrile seizures’. However, in cases of milder fever, there’s an argument for letting nature take its course.


1. Mace TA, et al. Differentiation of CD8+ T cells into effector cells is enhanced by physiological range hyperthermia. Journal of Leukocyte Biology 2011;90(5): 951-962

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