An old folk remedy passed down from previous generations says that applying rubbing alcohol to the skin can bring down a fever. But some advice — including this dangerous suggestion — is better left in the past.
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This so-called home remedy is actually an extremely unsafe practice that can cause severe health issues.
Pediatrician Maureen Ahmann, DO, explains what you need to know about rubbing alcohol and why you should never apply it to your or your child’s skin to try to treat a fever.
Dangers of using rubbing alcohol for a fever
“Do not wipe your child down with rubbing alcohol,” Dr. Ahmann stresses. “It can ultimately be more dangerous for your child than the fever itself.”
Rubbing alcohol is a household chemical product made with isopropanol, also known as isopropyl alcohol or 2-propanol. It has a variety of uses, including disinfecting surfaces and, when used in very small amounts, cleaning bug bites and piercing sites.
Rubbing alcohol on the skin can provide a temporary cooling effect, which is why it might seem like a good move to treat a fever. But that effect is fleeting, lasting for just a minute or two — and more importantly, it can cause severe health issues.
Think about what happens to a product after you put it in your skin: It soaks into your skin, but then what?
“Products that you apply to the skin are then absorbed through the skin and into the body,” Dr. Ahmann explains. If what you’re putting on your (or your child’s) skin is dangerous, it can cause health problems once it sinks in.
As its name suggests, rubbing alcohol contains alcohol. Once it’s absorbed into your child’s skin, it enters their bloodstream, which can cause serious and even life-threatening changes in their body’s ability to function.
- Alcohol poisoning: You might associate alcohol poisoning with having too much to drink, but rubbing alcohol applied to the skin can cause isopropyl alcohol poisoning in children, whose smaller bodies make them more susceptible to absorption-related issues.
- Coma: Alcohol intoxication and alcohol poisoning can lead to a disruption of brain activity known as a coma or a persistent vegetative state. When a person is in a coma, they’re unconscious, unaware of the world around them and unresponsive to attempts to wake them up.
- Cardiac and neurological problems: Alcohol in the bloodstream, especially in children’s small bodies, can cause problems with the heart and brain, including irregular heartbeat and seizures.
All of these issues can lead to permanent brain damage or even death.
“The potential side effects are so dangerous that you should never apply rubbing alcohol to the skin to try to bring down a high temperature,” Dr. Ahmann reiterates.
What to do for a fever instead
First, remember that a fever is actually a sign that your child’s body is trying to fight off a virus or an infection — which means it’s not always a cause for concern. Sometimes, fevers aren’t accompanied by any symptoms, and in these cases, all you need to do is keep an eye on your child and watch for any escalating concerns.
“If they’re running around and playing, you don’t have to worry about it too much,” Dr. Ahmann says. “The only reason to treat a fever is to make your child more comfortable.”
If your child is especially uncomfortable, like if their spike in temperature is brought on by the flu or another illness, there are a few things you can do while you wait for their fever to break.
“You can put a cool washcloth on their forehead, back or under their arms,” Dr. Ahmann advises, “and you can give them a lukewarm bath or shower — but not a cold bath, which can actually raise their temperature even further.”
If your child is under 6 months old or if their fever hasn’t come down after a few days — or if you have any other questions or concerns about how to treat them — call their pediatrician’s office to ask for individualized guidance.