Over the past decade, a controversy has been brewing over what is really a “normal” body temperature. Given that 98.6° F is one of the most widely accepted truisms in medical science, I was shocked to find out this was under scrutiny—and no longer true.
At a recent doctor’s visit, where I displayed my usual subnormal temperature, I asked why my temperature was so low. My doctor told me that everyone has her own version of what’s normal. I found this only slightly humorous because every time I have felt like I was going to die of fever at a simple 99.9° F, doctors always respond with, “it’s a very low grade fever; let’s see if it persists.”
Apparently, the medical community has been deep in thought about our temperature for a while now. In fact, it’s quite decided that 98.6° F is not the average norm—it’s 98.2° F. This may not seem like a large difference until you realize 0.4° F the other way means you have an infection, your body needs care and medicine, and you might miss work or school.
“What is your normal body temperature? It’s probably not 98.6° F, the oft-quoted average that was determined in the nineteenth century. A recent study has reported an average temperature of 98.2° F,” according to researcher, Allen Shoemaker.
Given the outcome of such a finding, it’s interesting that front line doctors aren’t more informed, often ignoring what their patients are feeling and instead relying solely upon the thermometer display.
So, where did we get 98.6° F in the first place?
First and foremost, the establishment of normal body temperature comes from the research of Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich. In 1861, he released data on the temperatures of twenty-five thousand people. Up until the 1990s, very little was done to refute his established norms.
It wasn’t until the publication of “A Critical Appraisal of 98.6° F (37.0° C), the Upper Limit of the Normal Body Temperature, and Other Legacies of Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich” in JAMA that the medical community began to make a fuss. Now many medical papers, theories, accusations, and studies have proven that 98.6° F is not “normal.”
Most researches have concluded that more sophisticated tools used to measure both Centigrade and Fahrenheit to highly accurate decimal points and the mathematical errors related to the previous data was what caused the miscalculation.
So it appears we have a new normal—98.2° F. It’s important for people to know their body temperature under restful and active situations so they can establish their own baseline body temperature and relay the information to their health care professionals. If you consistently have a low temperature like me, it’s important to know when you may have a fever. Alternatively, if you run high, you should take comfort in the fact that you are operating at what is normal for you.