When it comes to the human body, there are lots of numbers to keep track of: blood pressure, weight, blood sugar, body mass index and so on. But there’s one number everyone knows—the average human body temperature. It’s 98.6 degrees – always has been and always will be, right?
Not so fast, according to a team of Stanford University researchers who recently published a study that suggests the human body temperature is dropping and is now closer to 97.5 degrees.
So is that 1.1-degree difference something to get heated up about? We asked Dr. Gerald Harmon, vice president of medical affairs for Tidelands Health and a longtime family medicine physician in our region, for his thoughts about what it means.
Though the research is interesting, he says its value from the perspective of a patient or health care provider is limited.
Any body temperature higher than 99 degrees should still be treated as a fever, he says. And any fever that exceeds 103 degrees or lasts longer than three days should be addressed by a doctor (the guidelines are different for small children, so check with your child’s care provider).
“My caution to patients would be to continue considering temperatures over 99 as fevers,” says Dr. Harmon. “And if that temperature also coincides with you feeling sick, consider consulting with your doctor.”
Dr. Harmon says there could be a variety of reasons why it may appear body temperatures are changing over time, even if they aren’t.
The current standard dates back to the 1850s when German physician Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich analyzed temperatures taken from 25,000 people to come up with an average.
Back then, Dr. Harmon points out, people didn’t live as long. Therefore, the overall population would have been younger, and younger people tend to have higher body temperatures than older people.
In addition, he says, advances in medicine and sanitation standards in our society mean fever-causing infections such as tuberculosis are less rampant now than they were back then.
Body temperatures can vary
The Stanford researchers did suggest that changes over time in demographics and thermometer technology could have impacted the perceived decrease in body temperature—although they maintain the reduction is due, at least in part, to physiological changes.
“Though I think this kind of research is fascinating to read about and discuss, it’s important to remember the standard for a fever and how we use body temperature to diagnose illness haven’t changed,” Dr. Harmon says. “In reality, different people can have different average body temperatures – even the same person’s body temperature tends to change during the course of a day.
“From a health care standpoint, what matters most is how you are feeling rather than whether your temperature is 0.3 degrees different than another person.”
Dr. Gerald Harmon
Vice President of Medical Affairs and Family Medicine Physician
Dr. Gerald Harmon, who has cared for patients in our region for more than 35 years, is a family medicine physician and vice president of medical affairs at Tidelands Health.Learn More
Medical University of South Carolina
U.S. Air Force Regional Hospital
American Board of Family Medicine
Meet the Expert
Dr. Gerald Harmon
Dr. Gerald Harmon, who has cared for patients in our region for more than 35 years, is a family medicine physician and vice president of medical affairs at Tidelands Health.