Feverish claims

body temperaturebody temperature

Your armpit is not normal.

Its temperature falls consistently below 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The underside of your tongue probably isn't normal, either; hot drinks, gum-chewing, and birth control pills all change what the thermometer says. Body temperature is a degree higher in the afternoon, and a degree lower in the elderly.

In fact, normal isn't even normal: 98.6 degrees is an overestimate of average body temperature. A German doctor named Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich came up with it by sticking a foot-long mercury thermometer into 25,000 people's armpits for 15 minutes each. It was the mid-nineteenth century, so he averaged the readings by hand. This average became the medical standard for normal body temperature. And Wunderlich's thermometer wasn't even calibrated correctly-it read a good 3 degrees too low.

So what IS normal? A team of researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine tried again in 1992. They used digital thermometers, oral temperatures, and (poor Wunderlich) a mere 148 patients. Average body temperature, they decided, was 98.2 degrees Fahrenheit.

And that's not the end of it, because "average" isn't "normal" either. "Normal" is a spread, defined as the range in which 95% of temperature readings of healthy people fall: between 97.5 and 98.9 degrees. That means there's a 1 in 20 chance your body temperature-your normal body temperature-is higher or lower than normal. It's getting harder and harder to stay home from school.

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Posted By: Jessica Ruvinsky

IStock Photo 8957301 © Tom Hahn