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Normal Body Temperature : Rethinking the normal human body temperature

The 98.6° F “normal” benchmark for body temperature comes to us from Dr. Carl Wunderlich, a 19th-century German physician who collected and analyzed over a million armpit temperatures for 25,000 patients. Some of Wunderlich’s observations have stood up over time, but his definition of normal has been debunked, says the April issue of the Harvard Health Letter. A study published years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association found the average normal temperature for adults to be 98.2°, not 98.6°, and replaced the 100.4° fever mark with fever thresholds based on the time of day.

Now, researchers at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y., have found support for another temperature truism doctors have long recognized: Older people have lower temperatures. In a study of 150 older people with an average age of about 81, they found that the average temperature never reached 98.6°. These findings suggest that even when older people are ill, their body temperature may not reach levels that people recognize as fever. On the other hand, body temperatures that are too low (about 95°) can also be a sign of illness.

The bottom line is that individual variations in body temperature should be taken into account, reports the Harvard Health Letter. Ideally, you and your doctor should have enough temperature measurements at various times of day to establish a baseline for you. Short of this, recognize that 98.6° isn’t the benchmark that we’ve long believed it to be.

Also in this issue:

  • Atrial fibrillation: Beyond drug therapies
  • Inflammation: A common factor in many diseases
  • The trouble with ergonomic gardening tools
  • A doctor discusses: Can coconut oil improve cholesterol levels? Will a stronger calcium supplement help someone with thinning bones

Also in this issue of the Harvard Health Letter

  • By the way, doctor: Should I switch calcium supplements?
  • By the way, doctor: Is coconut oil healthful?
  • Get a good grip while toiling in the soil
  • Inflammation: A unifying theory of disease
  • Atrial fibrillation: Beyond drug therapies
  • Body heat: Older is colder

More Harvard Health News »


About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.