Fighting a Viral Fever

One of the most common causes of sickness absenteeism is a viral fever, very often called a “viral”. The viral fever is not caused by a single type of virus. It rather refers to several febrile infections caused by viruses. We tend to treat them as one and the same because the symptoms and management are similar irrespective of the causative virus. Viral fevers occur in all parts of the world and affect people of all ages. Thankfully, most of these infections are self-limiting, i.e. they will go away on their own. By this we do not mean to say that viruses cannot cause serious febrile illnesses. In fact, Dengue fever, Chinkungunya fever, and Japanese encephalitis are all caused by viruses. However, the typical set of symptoms that we call the “viral” can be managed with some self-care at home.

What are the Symptoms of a Viral Fever?

Once the virus enters the body, there is an incubation period when the virus multiplies to a level high enough to cause infection. This is followed by a phase of fatigue and body and muscle aches that may lead to the onset of fever. The fever may be low grade or high grade. Inflammation of the throat, a running nose, nasal congestion, headache, redness of the eyes, cough, muscle and joint pains and a skin rash could be present. Fatigue and body pain could be disproportionate to the level of fever, and lymph glands in the neck may swell up. The illness is usually self-limited but the fatigue and cough may persist for a few weeks. Sometimes pneumonia, vomiting and diarrhoea, jaundice or arthritis (joint swelling) may complicate the initial viral fever. Some viral fevers can cause a bleeding tendency.

How is a Viral Diagnosed?

The diagnosis and management of viral fevers is based on the clinical presentation rather than on laboratory investigations. The diagnosis is made by the typical history of fever with severe muscle and joint pains. Skin rash and lymph gland swellings have to be specifically looked for. Laboratory investigations are undertaken to rule out other bacterial infections rather than to confirm viral fever.

How to Treat a Viral Fever?

Treatment of viral fever is purely symptomatic. Specific antiviral therapy is not routinely recommended. Medicines are given to lower temperature and relieve body aches. Bed rest and adequate fluid intake is advised. Nasal decongestants may be beneficial. Steroids are not advised as it may lead to bacterial super-infection. Complications of viral infections like pneumonia need to be addressed specifically. Symptoms of gastroenteritis should be managed with anti-motility agents. Most viral fevers go away completely in a week although fatigue may persist for a few weeks

How to care for yourself

Symptoms of a viral fever will take some time to resolve and there are no magic cures for it. But the good news is that some simple self-care measures can help you feel a lot better:

  1. Drinking enough fluids will help you feel better and recover faster as it promotes drainage of secretions. So keep drinking warm water, tea and soup at regular intervals.
  2. Avoid alcohol, coffee and cigarettes: Alcohol and coffee are dehydrating. Cigarette smoke is a top respiratory irritant.
  3. Gargling with warm salt water several times a day is one of the most effective remedies for a scratchy and painful throat. Drinking warm lemon water with honey may also help soothe a sore throat. Chewing on some cloves also provides relief from throat pain.
  4. If you have a congested nose, with headache, or a sensation of pain or pressure around your eyes and nose, inhale steam two to four times during the day for about ten minutes.
  5. Chicken soup has gained credibility as a home remedy for cold since it has shown benefit in some scientifically conducted studies. You may want to try some to relieve your symptoms. Even vegetable soup with pepper and garlic will be soothing though it is yet to be tested by scientists.
  6. Keeping your room warm will definitely make you feel better, but avoid overheating the room. Using a vaporizer to moisten your room air will help ease congestion and coughing.
  7. Antibiotics are usually NOT required: Antibiotics are medicines that fight bacteria and not viruses. Over-using/ misusing antibiotics to treat a viral only makes them less effective in case they are required for more serious bacterial illnesses.
  8. In addition to the above self-care measures you may need some over-the-counter (OTC) drugs for relief of pain, fever and nasal congestion. Talk to a doctor to get the right OTC medicines that can help you feel better.

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