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Why Do We Get the Chills When We Have a Fever?

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Answers to why fevers cause us to shiver

If you’ve ever had a high temperature, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced the chills — and you’re probably wondering what brings them on when you have a fever. That’s something David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, is asked a lot.

“It’s a good question, because your temperature is higher than the normal 98.6 degrees, but you feel cold — why is that?” he says. “The reason is that when you are ill, there are chemicals being produced in your body causing your brain to reset the body’s internal thermostat at a higher temperature. So, the new ‘normal’ requires your body to feel ‘cold’ even if your temperature is above 98.6 but below the new higher setting. Your body reacts with ‘chills,’ or muscle contractions, which are designed to increase your body’s temperature. Many illnesses can cause the release of pyrogens, which are chemicals raising the brain’s thermostat setting. But commonly this occurs with infections like the flu.”

Taking medication to lower your temperature is the best way to diminish the feeling of chills, according to Dr. Cutler. A possible option? Theraflu, a medicine, which is often all that people need to reduce fever and make them feel better, Dr. Cutler explained.

However, treating the cause of the chills — not just the chills themselves — is key. “Treating the underlying illness is also important, whether that be by drinking fluids for a dehydrating illness, taking antibiotics for a bacterial infection, or whatever other treatment is recommended by your physician,” Dr. Cutler says. “Keep in mind there are many possible causes of fever and chills, so check with your doctor if you are not sure why this is happening. It may be more than just the flu.”