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Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Wonder Of Fevers

My family has been fighting off illnesses this week. Our daughter was sick and had a fever in the beginning of the week. She recovered after a few days, but last night our son started a fever, getting up to 102 (F) at one point. My wife took our daughter to the doctor to rule out strep throat, and it turns out that it's just a virus and nothing to worry about. It's inconvenient (I'm staying home from church this morning to stay with our son), but not a real concern.

My son is a curious person, and this morning he asked us how we knew he had a fever. As my wife explained it to him, I started having one of my moments where I thought of things in a somewhat skewed way. I started thinking about how cool and wonderful fevers were.

Mammalian and avian bodies have an internal thermostat, and regulatory processes that try to keep the body at a set temperature. The actual value varies by species (humans about 98-99, dogs and cats 101-102), but the body shouldn't range temperatures significantly. The body changes the internal environment to keep in that range. Shivering generates muscle movement and therefore heat to try and increase the temperature if it gets low. Sweating uses the principle of evaporation to draw heat from the body if it gets too warm.

A fever is different. This response is the result of the body generating more heat internally in response to an infection. What I find interesting and cool is that this is actually a good thing! Bacteria and viruses that affect a given species (humans in my kids' cases) survive best at a normal body temperature. When the body's temperature rises past a certain level, the germs will die. Therefore a fever is a part of the body's immune response, and is specifically designed to help clear the body of microorganisms.

What I find so cool and beautiful is the simplicity of this process. We think of fevers as undesirable because they make us feel bad. However, they are actually beneficial (if they don't get too high), and a pretty neat way for the body to heal. A body's immune response can be complicated, involving various antibody responses and white blood cells. When you look at the intricacies of this process, it can be very detailed and sometimes confusing. But turning up the body's thermostat is very simple by comparison, and a great way to make the body's environment hostile for invading microorganisms. And the fact that so many species utilize this method is also amazing to me. God did a great job of designing such an elegantly simple system to fight infection.

Yes, this means that we really should let a low-grade fever run its course. By taking medications to lower our fever we might feel better but we may be slowing the healing process. I also want to make sure that everyone understands that I'm talking about low-grade fevers. High fevers can be extremely dangerous, as the body can reach a temperature where proteins start to break down, and you can end up with serious or even fatal brain damage. But a mild fever is beneficial, and we sometimes just have to suffer through the discomfort in the short term in order to get rid of the infection sooner.

So the next time you, your family member, or your pets run a slight fever, keep in mind how wonderful this is!

Yes, I think strangely sometimes. My wife would certainly agree....