Since the 1800s, it’s been widely accepted that 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit is the “normal” human body temperature. This was based on the work of German physician, Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich, which he established by conducting millions of temperature readings on over twenty thousand patients. The results of his work were replicated by American and European physicians, and the metric was accepted as the standard we hold today. However, researchers at Stanford University have reported that the average modern-day temperature is probably somewhere closer to 97.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
There are two key possibilities to explain this shift toward cooler heads. The first is that our bodies have simply changed. We’ve grown taller and heavier, which affects our overall body temperature. Additionally, we have better nutrition, access to better medical care and consistently controlled climates with indoor air conditioning and heating.
The second and most important factor, however, may be the development of treatment for infectious diseases. With the addition of antibiotics and vaccines, most people live relatively inflammation- and fever-free as their bodies are not actively fighting diseases. This contributes to an overall cooler body temperature.
So, what is the takeaway from a “new normal” lower body temperature?
The key takeaway here is it’s important to look at body temperature on a more individual basis, moving away from the idea of one set point being “normal”. This is especially relevant now as we are regularly taking temperatures to monitor for COVID-19. Both you and your physician must be aware of the range in which your body usually runs to be better aware of any potential infection. Your fever may not look exactly like someone else’s fever.
For parents, this is also an important consideration as children return to school and daycare. You should be aware of what your child’s “normal” looks like in reference to the number on the thermometer. Knowing this can help you determine whether your child needs to be kept home for further monitoring or if they may need to see a physician. The proactive response can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses, such as the seasonal cold and flu.
If you feel like anything is unusual with your temperature or if you develop symptoms of an infection, you should contact your primary care physician.
Make an appointment with family medicine physician Sarah Barowka, MD.