Man, when I heard Madonna sing that song back in the day, I thought she was talking directly to me. Good times, good times…
But I digress! We’re here today to answer the question: “When is a fever really a fever, and how do I know if I have one?”
Let’s start by defining what’s not a fever by reviewing some of the common definitions I hear about 80 times a week:
- “I don’t have a thermometer but I’ve felt really hot.”
- “I was sweating last night so I must have had a fever.”
- “My temperature was 98.2° Fahrenheit but my temperature is normally low so that’s a fever for me.”
- (And my personal favorite) “My roommate told me I have a fever because she/he is a nursing student.”
According to the National Institute of Health a fever is “an increase in the body’s temperature due to disease or illness.” Normal body temperature is considered to be 98.6° Fahrenheit or 37° Celsius, but body temperature can vary by 1° throughout the day and elevations can be caused by factors other than illness.
If you take away anything from this post, it should be that you can’t tell if you have a fever if you don’t have a thermometer (and the old back of the hand to the forehead maneuver doesn’t count). The best kind to use is an oral thermometer – the one that goes under your tongue. You can get a tympanic thermometer that you stick in your ear, or a “baby” thermometer that you stick… somewhere else, but they aren’t recommended, or very pleasant, for adults. Luckily for you, a nice digital oral thermometer can be purchased right here at the Wilce Student Health Center Pharmacy for less than $3.00. Wow!
If you’re not feeling sick and just want to get an idea of what your normal temperature range is, it is recommended that you check your temperature in the morning when you first get out of bed and then in the afternoon (around 4:00pm or so) before you eat or drink anything.
If you are feeling sick and have a fever, when should you call the doctor? Generally speaking, if you’ve had a temperature greater than 100.4° F for more than 48-72 hours or if it ever goes above 103°F, you should give us a ring. Of course, it all depends on the other symptoms you are having, so when in doubt come in and let us check you out. In the meantime, the Mayo Clinic has some more good information for you (see ‘adults’ section).
Jason Williams, RN, OCN
Student Health Services
The Ohio State University