Can I Use Rubbing Alcohol to Bring Down a Fever?

Girl with a fever. Image Source/Getty Images

Many people worry about fevers - especially in children. When is it too high? Will it cause brain damage? WHY WON'T IT COME DOWN?!?

I have heard all of these questions and concerns and many more. It seems everyone has their own ideas about when it's important to bring the temperature down and how to best do that.

One of the more common "old wives' tales" about how to get a fever to break is to sponge the skin with rubbing alcohol.

I've even heard of people giving children baths in rubbing alcohol to try to bring down a fever.

But, does it work? Is it even safe?

The answering is a resounding NO. When you rub alcohol on a person's skin, it can absorb into the body and actually lead to alcohol poisoning. This is especially true in children.

Using rubbing alcohol to bring down a temperature is dangerous and ineffective. The body temperature is increased when we run fevers typically because our immune systems are trying to fight off an infection. As a result, our internal thermostats go up in an attempt to kill off the germs that are trying to make us sick. However, they don't just raise our skin temperature, the internal body temperature rises, so just cooling off the skin is not going to help bring the temperature down significantly. If it does come down, it will only be temporary and more often the result is that the core body temperature increases because the alcohol can make you feel so cold that you start shivering and your internal temperature goes up.

What Can You Do?

Hopefully, you are now convinced that using rubbing alcohol to reduce a fever is a bad idea. But you are probably still worried about the temperature and want to know what you can do.

The most effective (and safest) way to bring down a temperature is to take a fever-reducing medication like ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol).

They take some time to work (it's best to give them up to an hour) but most of the time can effectively bring down a fever and make you or your child feel more comfortable.

You can also use lukewarm rags to put on the forehead and under the arms, although this may only temporarily decrease the temperature. However, as long as they are not extremely cold, they may be used to make the person with the fever more comfortable.

When Should You Be Concerned?

Most of the time, fevers should not be a cause for concern. Fevers are almost never dangerous and can be a good thing because they are one of our natural defenses against infections. However, they do make us uncomfortable and using a fever-reducing medication can be helpful to alleviate some of that discomfort.

If you or you child has a fever, you should contact your health care provider or seek medical attention for:

  • Fever over 100.4F in an infant younger than 3 months
  • Signs of difficulty breathing (wheezing, retracting, labored breathing or blue or gray coloring to the face and lips)
  • A child that will not smile, play, eat or drink even after taking fever reducing medication
  • You also experience neck pain and stiffness
  • You have a new rash and bruises that appear
  • Your child is crying and cannot be consoled for an extended period of time (typically an hour or longer)

If you have any concerns about your fever or a fever in your child, contact your health care provider. You may not need to be seen, but your nurse or doctor can help you figure out if you do.


"Chills" MedlinePlus 2 Oct 14. US National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. US Department of Health and Human Services. 8 Oct 14.

"Ten Common First Aid Mistakes" SafetyNet. American Red Cross. 8 Oct 14.

"Fever". MedlinePlus 2 Oct 14. US National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. US Department of Health and Human Services. 8 Oct 14.

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