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The old adage says to feed a cold and starve a fever — advice medical experts don’t endorse. But it can be hard to know what to do when the mercury spikes. Learn how to gauge the thermometer reading so you know how to respond.

Even high temperatures (over 100) aren’t usually dangerous, but they do signal illness. While most fevers work to incinerate viruses and certain bacteria within a few days, some infections like meningitis and pneumonia require urgent care… and can override the brain’s built–in thermostat that controls body temperature. In general, if the fever hits 104, remains longer than 7 days, or is accompanied by stiff neck, chest pain, excessive vomiting, or confusion, seek medical attention. Otherwise, drink plenty of fluids and use cool cloths to help dissipate heat. The old home remedy of rubbing alcohol isn’t recommended nowadays — it can seep into the body through the skin and by inhaling the fumes.

Never take or give aspirin to help reduce fever. If discomfort hinders your sleep or if you have trouble staying hydrated, you can take relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, but know these drugs have been linked to other complications like liver failure, heart problems, and weakened immune response.

Fevers brought on by external factors such heatstroke or a poison can be serious. If you suspect fever is caused by something other than a germ, go to the hospital.

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