Fever has gotten a bad rap in recent years. Part of the probem is we’ve been schooled to believe an elevated temperature is dangerous or bad. As one of the body’s primary means of fighting off infections, including viral and bacterial microbes, Fever is a powerful weapon against illness. It ain’t bad, but it can become dangerous, especially when you don’t use it right.

What is a Fever? How can Fever be Good?

Any time your body’s temperature rises above its usual state, that’s a fever. Sounds simple, right? I mean, didn’t we all learn in high school health class that we’re supposed to have a temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit or 37 degrees Celsius?

The truth is, the human body is anything but static. We heat up and cool down within a range that is a little different for everyone. Some folks tend to run a little warmer than others. Some folks experience more shifts in temperature on an average day than others, too. Our bodies are constantly adjusting to accommodate loads of factors, like the temperature and conditions in our environment and the activity we’re engaged in. While we have set 98.6 degrees F/37 degrees C as our standard measure of healthy, it’s common for our own bodies to register a degree or even two higher or lower than the standard regularly.

Fever is defined as a higher than normal body temperature. It’s one of the body’s more powerful tools in combating illness. By increasing its temperature, you body creates an environment that’s hostile to the invading microbes. That weakens the invaders and gives your white blood cells a leg-up in fighting them off. In general, when your body temperature goes above 99 degrees F or 37.2 degrees C, the doctor will classify it as a fever. Fevers are considered dangerous when they get very high or are accompanied by symptoms including headache, listlessness (especially in children or babies), mental confusion, persistent vomiting, difficulty breathing or chest pain, seizures or convulsions, and abdominal pain or pain on urination. (Read more Here.)

How high is too high? The experts vary on this answer. For some folks, anything higher than 103 degrees F or 39.4 degrees C is dangerous. For others, a degree or two higher than that is their danger zone. It helps to know your body, your constitution, and to be familiar with how your body responds to stress when you’re evaluating fever. In general, it is wise to seek advice from a qualified medical professional if you have any doubts or concerns, especially when you’re caring for someone who cannot clearly evaluate the situation for themselves as is the case for children, babies, and folks who need special care.

Natural Approach to Fever

From an herbalist’s perspective, Fever is generally good. In fact, many of the herbs we use to reduce fever are actually useful for driving up the body’s temperature under the right conditions, too. That doesn’t mean we like to encourage the body to overheat or to drive its temperature into the danger zone. It means that when we see a fever accompanied by symptoms of illness, we don’t rush to bring it back down. It’s good to let the body govern its temperature on its own as much as possible. With that said, we have a good selection of herbs we can reach for to help us bring that fever back down when it’s been hanging about longer than desired.

Which Herbs Can I Use for Fevers?

Traditional Western Herbalism describes most of our favorite fever herbs as diaphoretic. Diaphoretic describes the herbal action that opens the skin’s pores and encourages the body to release heat, generally through sweating or perspiration. Herbs like Yarrow and Elder Flower are diaphoretic. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, these herbs move energy up and out of the body, releasing heat toxins to the surface. Chrysanthemum is classified as an herb that releases heat to the surface in TCM. From an Ayurvedic perspective, fevers are reduced using Pitta-supporting herbs, like ginger, garlic and cinnamon. All three of these are classified as Pitta-increasing or heating herbs; that action is paired with an opening of the pores and a boost in energy to the body’s core that helps drive toxins or microbes up and out.

From a practical standpoint, you can use Fever Herbs on their own, but most often I like to pair them with one or more herbs that fight off microbes, like viruses and bacteria. That can help to make the body even more hostile to the invading illness, giving you a greater chance of avoiding getting worse and recovering quickly. When I’m formulating for fevers in my home, I usually pair herbs classified as anti-microbial, like Sage, Oregano, Monarda, Rosemary, Lemon Balm, and Bay Laurel, with a handful of Fever Herbs. My personal favorite ways to use them is in either a Steam or an Herbal Infusion, or both!

Practical Practice: Testing Herbs for Fever

Create a quick blend of Fever Herbs and Anti-Microbial Herbs using any of the following:

  • Yarrow – Fever Herb, Diaphoretic, especially useful for digestion
  • Elder Flower – Fever Herb, Diaphoretic, especially useful for upper respiratory tract
  • Garlic – Fever Herb, Diaphoretic, Anti-microbial, Anti-fungal especially useful for digestion
  • Ginger – Fever Herb, Diaphoretic, especially useful for digestion
  • Cinnamon – Fever Herb, Diaphoretic, especially useful for balancing blood sugar
  • Chili Pepper – Fever Herb, Diaphoretic, especially useful for improving circulation
  • Sage – Anti-microbial, especially useful for respiratory system
  • Oregano – Anti-microbial, anti-fungal, especially useful for digestive tract including throat
  • Monarda – Anti-microbial, stimulant, especially useful for digestion
  • Rosemary – Anti-microbial, stimulant, relaxant, especially useful for easing tension and spasm in musculature
  • Lemon Balm – Anti-microbial, anti-depressive, especially useful for digestion
  • Bay Laurel – Anti-microbial, carminative, especially useful for digestive distress

Use your blend in both a tea and an herbal steam. Notice how your body responds to each method and see what works easier for you.

Fevers help with Detox? What?!?

It’s true, there are times when we may want to consider artificially inducing a fever. Herbal Saunas, Hot Baths, and Steams are all tools we often use when we’re detoxing or doing a cleanse, and they’re also tools that tend to drive up internal body temperature a bit while opening the pores to let stuff out. In short, they’re fever-inducing tools!

Healthy folk tend to periodically make time to do a cleanse, which is a little like Spring Cleaning or the Fall Tidy-up before Winter hits. When Herbalists do so, we often include a blend of the same herbs we might use to drive out illness and bring down a fever. That’s one of the amazing aspects of Fever Herbs; because they’re all about helping your body move energy up and out of your system, they can help you to either bring on or bring down a fever. As a tool for preventing illness, they’re a great addition to your cleanse toolkit. If you don’t have access to a sauna or hot tub or even a luxuriously large bath tub like me, you can still make use of a little sweat in your cleanse.

Make Space to Sweat

When I’m doing a cleanse, I often make space for a bit of sweating. A good workout is one avenue, but it’s not the only one. I put together a blend of my favorite Fever Herbs with a handful of Anti-microbial herbs and use them in three ways, usually all at once.

First, I make an herbal infusion, usually I aim for about 12 ounces and I generally keep it weak enough that drinking it feels comforting rather than like drinking a whole lot of medicine. (For bringing down a fever, I go for the medicinal strength!)

While my tea is steeping, I set up an Herbal Steam. If you pour water from the kettle for both your infusion and steam at the same time, your infusion will be about ready to drink when you’re done with the steam.

After my steam when my infusion is ready to drink, I either wrap myself up in a big, warm blanket and settle in my favorite chair to rest awhile while the herbs do their work or I pour the remainder of the herbs from my steam and the strained herbs from my tea into a foot basin with a half-cup of epsom salts and a bunch of hot water for a foot bath. I generally drink my tea while my feet are warming up, then I might retreat to my favorite chair with that warm blanket for a bit of comfort while the herbs do their work.

After I’ve given my body a good chance to sweat it out, I take a cool shower to wash away the sweat and toxins. (If I’m trying to bring down a fever, I will likely also take a shower after taking my infusion and resting, but I’ll generally keep the water temperature warm but not hot so as to not shock my system and accidentally weaken my defenses.)

Recipes and Ideas to Try

Search the Recipes section at The Practical Herbalist for more ideas and recipes for preventing and managing cold and flu symptoms.