Fever in Adults: When to Worry
Karen Justiniano, DO, MS, Stamford Health Medical Group
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A friend of mine whose father is 70 years old told me her story. It went something like this:
“My father never gets fevers. Out of nowhere the other day, he developed a 103 temperature with no other symptoms. He is also fully vaccinated against COVID-19. My mother brought him to the emergency room. Did she do the right thing, or would he likely have been fine if he stayed home and let the fever run its course?”
As a physician who cares for a variety of people with a variety of conditions, I have to say of course she did the right thing! When in doubt or when concerned, seeking medical attention is the smart thing to do.
But the longer answer is a little more complicated than that. It all starts with breaking down the purpose of a fever, and when you should truly worry. Please note—fevers in infants or young children are sometimes a different story—what you are about to read relates to adults only.
What is a fever and why do we get them, and sometimes with no other symptoms?
Fever is an elevated body temperature which means your temperature is 100.4 degree F or higher. A fever is the body’s way of fighting an infection by naturally raising your body’s temperature to “kill the germ.” The medical community likes to say that fever is a “good thing,” in most cases.
And yes, it’s completely possible for adults to develop a fever with no other symptoms, and for doctors to never truly find the cause. Viral Infections can commonly cause fevers, and such infections include COVID-19, cold or the flu, airway infection like bronchitis, or the classic stomach bug.
That’s why you often hear the word “viral” as an explanation because these types of infections often go away on their own after a few days.
What is considered a high fever in adults?
A high-grade fever in adults is 103 degrees F or higher.
Is it possible that a fever could be a sign of a “breakthrough case” of COVID-19 even if the person is fully vaccinated?
Yes, but not highly likely. Breakthrough cases of COVID-19 in fully vaccinated people have been reported, but symptoms tend to be milder than in non-vaccinated people, including fever.
First, make sure you are taking your temperature the right way. Taking your temperature by mouth is the most accurate method, and wait at least 30 minutes after you eat or drink anything hot or cold. Get medical attention for your fever if:
- Your temperature is high and has not gone down after taking Tylenol or Advil
- Your temperature lasts several days or keeps coming back
- You live in an area where people have COVID-19
- You have serious health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, lupus, or sickle cell anemia. (Non-infections like these can cause fever as well.)
You should also seek medial attention if you have a fever and you:
- Are pregnant
- Recently returned from travel overseas
- Get infections often
- Are on chemotherapy, in which case you should seek medical attention immediately if the fever lasts for more than one hour.
- Have recently been bitten by a tick
Is 98.6 still considered "normal" body temperature?
Yes and no. You’ve probably always heard that the average body temperature is 98.6, but the truth is there’s a much wider range—from about 97 to 99 degrees F.
So why is 98.6 suddenly a myth after all these centuries? Research suggests body temperatures are falling overall. Doctors have a few ideas about why this is, including lower metabolic rates, lower rates of infection and more advanced thermometers.
A couple of helpful reminders:
- As the saying goes, “Don’t fear the fever.” A fever is your body’s first line of defense in fighting off an infection.
- If you are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and have developed a high-grade fever, please call your doctor right away.