Fever: Vital Force, Cleansing Fire

As parents, we have the awesome responsibility of stewardship of our children’s health.  When we feel our child burning up with fever and see the glassy eyed, lethargic look, it’s natural to want to treat the fever.  However, traditional wisdom and contemporary research suggests that suppressing fever is not health promoting and in fact, may even be harmful. Fever is a response of a strong and healthy immune system.  Fever is a cleansing fire during times of illness and imbalance.  Some current research that indicates that the more fevers a child has in the early years the lower the rates of chronic conditions later in life including asthma, allergies and eczema.   Some holistic theoreticians believe that when a child is not allowed to mount large inflammations in the early years, toxins become entrenched causing persistent low level inflammations.  Chronic inflammatory disease is viewed as the attempt of the body to complete the feverish cycle.   In fact, some British medical herbalists provoke therapeutic fever in adults with low-grade inflammatory illness to help them clear these problems.  Current naturopathic practice also uses the immune-promoting properties of fevers to help adults with HIV. Holistic practice supports the body through its feverish process, rather than suppressing fever.  We need to allow our children to mount big inflammations, exercise his young immune system and comple the cleansing process.

Learning Immunity: The Task of the Child’s Body

When it comes to health, children are not simply miniature adults. Children have unique health issues.  Early childhood, that special period from birth to about age seven, is characterized by the development of immunity.  When a baby leaves the sterile environment of the womb he or she lacks an immune system as we know it.   After birth the sterile babe’s skin is immediately colonized by what it comes in contact with in the environment.  (Yet another great reason to birth in the home rather than an institution and to place all newborns immediately skin-to-skin on mama’s abdomen).  The tiny baby borrows immunity from his mother via breastmilk while she is still in the process of developing her own immune system.

Babies and children build an immune system with the help of the thymus gland, a large, flat gland that lies across the chest like a shield.  (As we age this gland atrophies and becomes inactive). This gland sends out immune cells throughout the body which then take up residence in the tissues of the child and begin to create colonies of immune cells throughout the body.

Immunity is so much more than protection from disease.  Immunity can be thought of as the ability of the body to recognize itself; to distinguish the difference between Self and Other (food, “germs”, dust, mold—anything we that enters us via our lungs, skin or g.i. tract).  Immunity is learned—it comes from experience.  We have to learn not to attack the Self, to let the harmless Others be, and to seek and destroy that which is harmful to us.

 Feverish and Eruptive Illness in Childhood

The new human with so little immune experience comes in contact with a countless variety of foreign substances. The little body is prone to infection from organisms that older children and adults have the immune capacity to handle.  Scientists have noted that infections steadily increase in frequency from birth, peak around age six and decline sharply after age seven.

Anthroposophical medicine (based on the work of Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf Education) adds more to our perspective on fever.  Dr. Phillip Inaco, an anthroposophical physician, believes that the rapid growth and development of the child’s body is a process not only of growth but of the destruction of old tissues.  Old tissues that are broken down create the medium which microorganisms feed upon.  In this model, fevers play an important cleansing role, ridding the body of wastes until illness disappears.

Many classic childhood illnesses are characterized by not only fever but also eruption. Eruption is another method of cleansing used by the immune system.  Take for instance the simple case of teething. Wise mothers have noticed that the eruption of the tooth is accompanied by other discharges and eruptions including drool, mucus, diaper rash, rash on the cheeks and of course, fever.   Other childhood illnesses also feature eruption including Chicken Pox, Measles, German measles, and Rubella.

Traditional Wisdom about Fever

Traditional cultures and systems of medicine around the world including Native American, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and even Traditional Western Medicine have viewed fever as a sign of the rallying of the body’s vital force.  Traditional and holistic management of fever involves respectfully and carefully watching of fever but does not involve trying to lower the fever.  Instead, traditional treatment of fever attempts to help move the body swiftly through the stages of the fever, actually promoting short-term heat so the body can quickly get its job done.

Traditional management of fever emphasizes three very basic practices:  Heat, Sweating and Diaphoretic Teas.   Even though it feels counter-intuitive the feverish child needs to be kept warm.  Remember that although the thermometer may indicate a state of warmth, your child may actually be experiencing chills or feelings of coldness.  Feeling chilled or cold means that deep in the recesses of the brain, the hypothalamus (which controls temperature) is still trying to raise the body temperature to a level which can accomplish the necessary cleansing work and the killing of micro-organisms.  The child should be kept in warm clothing and warm blankets.

Sweating is used as fever therapy all over the world, from the Native American sweat lodge to the Finnish Sauna and other global practices using hot water and steam. Sweating helps the fever to “break.” The normal course of fever begins with the chill phase as the fever is still rising, followed by a period of high fever with a hot and dry feeling.  Finally, when the fever “breaks”, the child sweats, feels relief and the temperature begins to decline.  A fever usually peaks in severity before it breaks.

Diaphoretic herbs that promote sweating are also important in the treatment of fevers.    Diaphoretics are herbs that can be used in teas or used in an herbal bath to help open the pores, allow the heat out and promote sweating. Diaphoretics also promote healthy discharge through the skin.  There are countless herbal diaphoretics. I have a few favorites that I consistently recommend to parents in my practice, including Elder Blossoms, Linden Blossoms, Catnip, Yarrow, Peppermint and Boneset.  Feel free to experiment with these safe and effective herbs in your family.  Each of these herbs has a rich history and special qualities that differentiate them from one another.  Consult an herbalist or a good herbal book for more information.

As a mother, if I could only have one herb in my cupboard I would choose Elder Blossoms. Elder Blossoms can be steeped and taken as a tea or added to the bath.  It makes a mild tasting tea tolerated by most children. Steep one teaspoon of dried herb in 8 oz of boiling water for 15 minutes covered with a saucer.  Another great herbal fever treatment is the classic Western herbal formula consisting of equal parts Elder Blossom, Peppermint and Yarrow (put a handful of each in a quart jar, pour over them a pint and a half of boiling water, steep for half and hour, strain, sweeten and drink it in bed as hot as can be tolerated)   Most children under 3 will naturally drink about ¼ cup of medicinal tea, kids from 3 to 7 can take about ½ cup, and for older folks use a  1 cup dose. Doses can be repeated several times daily.

Fever and Diet

Feverish kids do not need to eat.  The body does not have the energy to work on digestion while doing this important healing work.  Simply keep your little one hydrated and the appetite will return when balance is restored to his or her body.  Juice, milk and soymilk are not health promoting beverages during fever (breastmilk, of course, is always appropriate).  The cool damp energy of these drinks is contraindicated.  Emphasize the traditional chicken soup or miso broth, hot teas and of course, water.  Warm liquids are more easily absorbed by the body than ice cold beverages.

 Seeking Outside Assistance

Many holistically minded mothers struggle over the decision to take the feverish child to the medical doctor.  In general it is best to stay calm and trust the wisdom of your child’s body.  A fever of 101, 102 or even 103 degrees when not complicated by other symptoms is not usually cause for alarm.  Following the principles outlined above of warmth, sweating and diaphoretic herbs, along with attention to hydration and a simple diet will usually be sufficient. It is also important to remember that a fever frequently peaks in severity just prior to great improvement, and that it is not unusually for fevers that to return in the evening after normal daytime temperatures.

Call a trusted health care practitioner if you are uncertain about the severity of your child’s illness.  Some signs that are cause for concern include changes in breathing (shallow, faster or labored); fever accompanied by excessive vomiting or fever with no improvement in approximately 3-4 days.  Fevers accompanied by rashes should be examined by a qualified practitioner to accurately diagnose what may be infectious illness or may pose greater risks to the child.   At any time that your mother’s intuition tells you something isn’t right, seek help—it’s not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of wisdom!

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