Starve the Flu, Have a Fever

An interesting new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (summarized in The New York Times) , using mathematical modeling tools, suggests that medications that reduce fever may amplify the ability of the virus to spread. 

Fever, as unpleasant and disabling as it is, serves two purposes with respect to infectious disease.

  1. Usually, microbes are unable to reproduce at the higher temperature that characterizes fever.
  2. The unpleasantness of fever often limits social contacts, starving the microbe of new hosts to infect. 

Consequently, when fever is controlled the propensity of the microbe--in this case influenza--is enhanced by 1-5%. Taken at a population level such a minor increment can translate into a substantial number of added cases. 

The results of the study while intriguing and logical, must be placed into context. Fever, though usually benign, can have serious consequences such as febrile seizures in children and increasing the metabolic demand, which could prove dangerous in someone with compromised cardiac or pulmonary function. 

Bottom line: Be cognizant that reducing fever helps the virus but may be a necessary action when the entire context of the patient is taken into account.