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Letting a Fever Run Its Course Might Clear Infections Faster

New research found that inducing a mild fever in fish with a bacterial infection activated their immune system defenses and helped control the illness.

In humans and animals, body temperature is controlled by the hypothalamus. This part of the brain detects when the body temperature falls outside 98.6°F and adjusts accordingly. However, bacteria and viruses can trigger the hypothalamus to increase body temperature, resulting in a fever.

Moreover, fever is self-resolving — meaning the body can initiate and stop it naturally.

Still, when a fever occurs, many people reach for over-the-counter medications to bring it down. Although controlling a fever might offer relief from specific symptoms, new research suggests that it might also hamper the body’s ability to fight the infection causing the fever.

In the study, published on March 14 in eLife, scientists from the University of Alberta, Canada, found that moderate fever controlled inflammation in fish with a bacterial infection, helped the fish recover from illness rapidly, and repaired damaged tissue.

To investigate the impact of body temperature regulation on immune defense and tissue repair, the researchers induced and regulated fevers in fish with a bacterial infection. The fish were analyzed with high-fidelity quantitative positional tracking and showed similar symptoms to what humans might have in response to an illness.

The team found that the fish integrated with fever showed a faster immune system response and cleared the infection quicker than fish without a fever. What’s more, fever dampened inflammation and helped repair tissue injured by the disease.

These results suggest that treating a mild to moderate fever with fever-reducing medications may be counterproductive.

"They take away the discomfort felt with fever, but you're also likely giving away some of the benefits of this natural response," says lead author Daniel Barreda, immunologist and joint professor in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences and the Faculty of Science, in a news release.

The study authors suggest that because fever resulted in faster clearance of the infection, this could mean that allowing a moderate fever to run its course might be advantageous in the management of infectious diseases.

In addition, fever may help prevent secondary skin infections and assist in the management of wounds.

Still, the authors say more research using human participants would help clarify future applications of these findings.

Barreda explains, "our goal is to determine how to best take advantage of our medical advances while continuing to harness the benefits from natural mechanisms of immunity."

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