High Fever: Possible Causes and Treatments
In rare cases, a high fever can occur without any infection as a result of arthritis, lupus, or certain gastrointestinal and vascular disorders.
This article reviews possible causes of a high fever, how this symptom differs in adults vs. children, and treatments for high fever.
Most bacteria that affect humans flourish in normal or near normal body temperatures. When you have an infection, your immune system raises your body’s temperature to stifle the growth of the invading microorganisms.
Both viral and bacterial infections can cause a high fever. Infections with a high fever as a symptom include:
Your doctor will evaluate all of your symptoms to determine the specific infection that may be causing your high fever. Other symptoms that may indicate an infection and may occur with a high fever include:
- sweats and chills
- a sore throat
- abdominal pain
- shortness of breath
- a stuffy nose
- neck stiffness
- a change in urination or pain while urinating
- a new cough or a worsening cough
- unusual vaginal discharge
Contact your doctor if you have any symptoms of infection, particularly if you have recently undergone surgery or have a weakened immune system. Prompt diagnosis and treatment can prevent complications that can become serious or life threatening.
Heat exhaustion occurs when your body temperature rises and your body is not able to cool itself quickly. You may develop heat exhaustion from working or exercising in hot temperatures, particularly if you do not drink enough water.
On its own, heat exhaustion is usually not serious. However, it can lead to heat stroke, which is a life threatening medical emergency.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion include a fever of 101ºF (38ºC) or higher. Other symptoms may include:
Sepsis is a systemic immune system reaction in response to an infection. Without treatment, sepsis can progress to septic shock. This is a life threatening condition that causes organ damage due to severely low blood pressure.
Sepsis can cause a body temperature that is very high or very low.
The Sepsis Alliance uses the acronym “TIME” to identify the symptoms of sepsis.
|T||temperature that is higher (100ºF or 37.7ºC) or lower than usual|
|I||infection symptoms that affect the whole body, such as fatigue or pain|
|M||mental status change, including confusion or extreme sleepiness|
|E||extremely ill feeling, which some people describe as the worst they have ever felt|
Learn more about sepsis causes, stages, and treatments.
Certain medications can cause a high fever as a side effect, known as a drug fever. In some cases, a fever may be the only adverse reaction a person experiences from a drug.
If you have an unexplained high fever, talk with your doctor or pharmacist about any medications you are taking. They can help determine if your fever is a side effect and discuss alternative treatment options if needed.
Several noninfectious conditions can cause a high fever as a symptom.
Your doctor will ask about all of your symptoms to help make an accurate diagnosis. If you already have a diagnosis, tell your doctor about any high fever or other symptoms you experience.
Noninfectious causes of a high fever include:
- Crohn’s disease
- rheumatoid arthritis
- systemic lupus erythematosus
- ulcerative colitis
Fever of unknown origin (FUO) occurs when someone has had a fever for at least 3 weeks without a clear indication of the cause after a week of in-hospital evaluation.
Most times, doctors eventually identify an underlying cause, and it is typically an undiagnosed infection. In about 10% of adults with FUO, however, doctors are unable to determine the cause.
Pediatricians have different guidelines related to fever for children based on their age.
Although there are several types of thermometers that parents and caregivers can use, doctors consider a rectal temperature to be the most accurate reading.
When evaluating fever in infants, doctors generally define a rectal temperature of 100.4ºF (38ºC) as clinically significant.
Newborns (0–3 months)
Any infant younger than 3 months who has a fever should receive medical care, even if they appear to have no other symptoms.
Infants at this age could be at high risk of infection or complications simply due to their age.
Young children (3 months to 3 years)
Guidelines from the American Academy of Family Physicians state that doctors should consider children in this age group to be at high risk if they have a fever along with symptoms including:
- rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
- difficulty waking or being roused from sleep
- slow refill of color (more than 2 seconds) to the fingertips if pressed
- petechiae, which is a rash of tiny spots that appear due to bleeding under the skin
School-aged children (3 years and older)
For children of this age, home care is typically effective in managing a fever. Management steps include:
- allowing the child to rest
- providing the child with plenty of fluids
- giving the child acetaminophen or ibuprofen, following the dosage guidance on the label
- keeping the child in light clothing
- watching for symptoms of dehydration, such as a dry mouth or a lack of tears when crying
Symptoms of a febrile seizure include:
- eye rolling
- a change in skin color
- changes in breathing
A febrile seizure typically lasts 1–2 minutes, and then the child quickly returns to their typical self.
Learn more about what to do if a child has a febrile seizure.
In many cases, a fever will go away on its own with home care. However, in some situations, a high fever requires prompt or even emergency medical care.
Contact a doctor for a high fever if your child meets the following criteria.
|Age||Rectal temperature||Additional symptoms|
|0–3 months||100.4ºF (38ºC) or greater||Children of this age with a fever should visit a doctor even if they have no other symptoms.|
|3 months to 3 years||100.4ºF (38ºC) or greater||Children of this age who have a fever for more than 3 days and who have additional symptoms should visit a doctor.|
|3 months to 3 years||102ºF (38.9ºC) or greater||Children of this age who have a fever of this level should visit a doctor even if they have no other symptoms.|
Children of any age should visit a doctor if they experience:
- a febrile seizure
- recurrent fevers over a period of more than 7 days
- a fever with a diagnosed chronic condition, such as cancer or lupus
- a fever that occurs with a skin rash
Adults should seek medical attention for a high fever if they experience:
- extreme thirst
- reduced urine output
- severe muscle cramps
- a fever after international travel
- a fever with a diagnosed chronic condition, such as cancer or HIV
- a fever with a weakened immune system
- moving the person to a shaded or cooler area
- giving the person frequent sips of cool water
- removing unnecessary clothing, such as shoes and socks
- applying cool compresses
- having the person wash their face, neck, and head with cold water
Treatment for a high fever often relies on treating the underlying cause.
For bacterial infections, treatment typically consists of antibiotics. Viral infections typically improve with time and home care, including rest, fluids, and over-the-counter (OTC) medications.
Sepsis can progress to septic shock, which is a life threatening emergency. Seek urgent medical care if you have symptoms of sepsis.
Rapid treatment for sepsis includes antibiotics to treat the underlying infection and medications that maintain blood flow to vital organs.
If your fever is an adverse effect of a specific medication you are taking, your doctor can recommend alternative treatment options.
These are some other questions that people often ask about high fevers. Lauren Castiello, M.S., AGNP-C, has reviewed the answers.
How long does the fever last with COVID-19?
Symptoms of COVID-19 can last from a few days to a few weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC says that anyone with COVID-19 who has symptoms, including fever, should isolate for at least 5 full days. After this time, if you have been free from fever for 24 hours without needing fever-reducing medication, you can end your isolation.
Is drinking cold water good for fever?
Your body can become dehydrated when you have a fever, so drinking any kind of water is beneficial. Staying hydrated also helps your immune system fight off the infection causing the fever. Steps to cool yourself during a fever include wearing light clothing and taking OTC fever-reducing medications.
A high fever is a body temperate of 103ºF (39ºC) or higher in an adult. In a child, a temperature of 101ºF (38ºC) or higher is a high fever.
Causes of a high fever include infections, heat exhaustion, sepsis, and noninfectious conditions, particularly those that affect the immune system.
Contact a doctor if you or your child has a high fever, particularly if it occurs with other symptoms, including a loss of consciousness, confusion, or a rash.