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Why a High Temperature Shouldn’t Send You to the ER

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Why a High Temperature Shouldn’t Send You to the ER

Aug 12, 2016

It may be hard to wrap your head around, but that high number on the thermometer is not a sure sign you should go to the ER. Believe it or not, there is no way a fever can ‘cook your brain’ and no specific number to be alarmed about. Emergency room physician Dr. Troy Madsen talks about the more important signs you should look for with a fever before rushing to the hospital.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: When is a fever bad enough that you should go to the ER? We'll examine that next on The Scope.

Announcer: This is "From the Frontlines," with emergency room physician Dr. Troy Madsen, on The Scope. On The Scope.

Interviewer: Dr. Troy Madsen is an emergency room physician at University of Utah Health Care. When is a fever bad enough to go to the ER? Dr. Madsen, shed some light on that for us.

Dr. Madsen: Yeah. You know, it's interesting you bring that question up because I've had people ask me even recently. They've said, "At what point is the fever just going to cook my brain and how high does it have to be to cook my brain"?

Interviewer: That can't happen. Right?

Dr. Madsen: I can't say I've ever seen it happen and I told them that.

Interviewer: Okay.

Dr. Madsen: And it's something that's out there. I remember hearing that too, like people saying, "Wow, you got to keep your fever down, or you're just going to fry your brain." I can't say I've seen that. So when I think of fever I don't think of the absolute number with the fever. We define a fever as being 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or greater. So I think of fever more in terms of what are the symptoms that you're having or what kind of medical problems do you have.

This is a child, a young infant, less than, say, 12 weeks old, and they have a fever of 100.5 or greater, you got to go to the ER because there, we get concerned about a serious infection. If this is someone who has an immune system problem, who's on chemotherapy, or maybe has HIV, or something that's affecting their immune system, again, another reason to go to the ER. I'm not concerned about is it 105, is it 100.5, if they have a fever, they need to have testing done.

Interviewer: If they are in that particular group?

Dr. Madsen: Exactly.

Interviewer: Okay.

Dr. Madsen: If they have immune system problems, if they're very young, and then, of course, if they're very old, people who are very old also. It's interesting because very old people really don't get high fevers like someone in their 20s might. So in them, a fever or a temperature of 100.5, that's pretty significant. And again, potentially a sign of something going on that's very serious. Whereas the average person walking along, who's healthy, who has really no medical issues, maybe they have a cough, maybe they have a fever up to 102, even 103, in my mind, that's not so concerning.

So when I think of fever, I think of more the whole person, what kind of medical problems do they have. And then, beyond that, I think of "Okay, what else is going on?" If it's someone who has a fever, who says the light bothers my eyes, my neck is stiff, I'm confused, or someone is reporting to me that they're confused, then I think of meningitis. Fever with a really severe cough, or a cough that has been going on for a week, and won't go away, I think of pneumonia or a sinus infection. Certainly, fever is with your unary symptoms, back pain, we think about kidney infections and issues there.

So again, you're taking that whole picture. So I think the big take home point would be that I don't even own a thermometer at home. I don't check my own temperature. I know if I'm hot, or I'm cold, or family member is hot or cold. I've heard some pediatricians say, "Get rid of your thermometer. Just don't use it on your kids unless they're the very young kids less than 12 weeks old," Because there, you are again looking at the whole picture. It's not just the fever.

Is the child lethargic? Are they feeding well? Are they eating? Are they still urinating, meaning that they're still having adequate fluids in their body? You're looking at everything there in addition to the fever.

Interviewer: That's kind of a tough paradigm for me to wrap my head around because I think a lot of people are just driven by "Oh, 103 fever. That's burning up. That's a major problem." But it sounds like you're saying to take that as an indicator to maybe assess, are there some other issues going on and those other issues are actually the reasons why you'd probably go to the ER?

Dr. Madsen: That's exactly it. You could have 103 fever with kind of a run of the mill cold, and you could feel absolutely miserable, but it doesn't mean you have to rush to the ER.

Interviewer: Okay.

Dr. Madsen: And you can. If you're at all concerned, never hesitate to call your doctor. Never hesitate to go to an urgent care or an ER. But in your mind, I want to think of it as like, "Okay. This absolute temperature means you're sick or something less than temperature means you're not." Like I said, some people with 100.5-degree temperatures who have other problems, that's really serious. Whereas another person on 103-degree temperature, probably very well, just could be a viral infection, and it isn't that big a deal.

Interviewer: So this could be probably tough information for somebody to hear because I'm imagining if they're listening to this, they're concerned about somebody in their life with a fever. If they don't fall in one of those two groups, the very young, the very old, they're going to want to do something. But it sounds like what you're saying is a fever should only indicate that maybe you should look and see if there are other symptoms?

Dr. Madsen: That's exactly it.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Dr. Madsen: Yeah. I won't rush to get into the hospital based on a fever alone. Look at the whole picture. Look at all the symptoms. Look at how the person is acting. If they're acting fine, and they're eating well, and drinking well, and they're alert, and they're not confused, and they've got a temperature of 102, they're probably okay. You can give it some time. You can take some Tylenol, some ibuprofen, to bring the fever down and see how they're doing.

Announcer: We're your daily dose of health, sciences, conversation. This is The Scope, University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.