Symptoms of an illness, infection, or disease often include a fever as the body mounts an inflammatory response. A high fever can have many unpleasant side effects: sweating and shaking, body aches, and a head that feels like a blown-up balloon, just to name a few. However, perhaps one of the strangest symptoms of a high fever is the phenomenon known as the fever dream.
While there are many types of dreams, fever dreams are commonly known for being very strange or more intense than usual and are typically experienced only during high fevers. Maybe you have experienced such a dream and woken up wondering, “What on earth just happened to me?”
Fortunately, while the dreams are wild and often frightening, the explanation is simple.
Many somnologists and neurologists have studied such sleep-related conditions extensively to understand the exact science behind them. Through many decades of research, they have solved various mysteries about what happens when we sleep, and their findings include several theories about fever dreams.
Here we will share the conclusions of dedicated sleep medicine professionals. We will help you understand what causes these dreams and what they might mean for you.
How Is a Fever Dream Defined?
Fever dreams are a relatively uncommon occurrence compared to other symptoms of fever. In a 2013 study on fever symptoms, fever dreams were among the least reported symptoms, with only 11% of participants experiencing them. The study confirmed that fever symptoms can vary widely from patient to patient and that patients of all ages experience fever dreams.
You may wonder whether you can reliably tell the difference between a fever dream and an average nightmare if there is only a chance you will have one, and a feeling of general unpleasantness and discomfort are the only signs that you’ve had one. However, research shows that you almost definitely will know the difference.
Another study performed in 2020 confirmed that fever dreams are extraordinarily heightened compared with the average bad dreams. Participants reported that their dreams were markedly bizarre and frightening in tone. One participant described, “The most intense feelings [that I experienced during the dream] were weakness and helplessness.”
Several participants also reported heat, confusion, and subject matters like health and temperature playing a significant role in their dreams. Some participants described scenarios where their bodies were on fire or they were being chased down the street by lava.
Why Do We Have Fever Dreams?
Dreams are a nebulous area of sleep science. There is much contention over their origins as well as their significance to our lives. However, much of the scientific community agrees that dreams, which occur during the phase of sleep known as rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, are the brain’s way of parsing out what is happening in your waking life.
We are bombarded with information and images all day long in our modern lives. Dreams ensure that you can process all the stimuli you take in throughout the day in a healthy manner so you can function when you wake up the next day.
As a 2007 study shows, dreams aid in determining which memories are stored in the brain and which are thrown out. As this data is processed while we sleep, bits and pieces show up in the sleeping mind as dreams.
A more recent study suggests that different sleep phases process different things: namely, episodic memories come first, and deeper emotions come later. Other theories suggest that dreams reflect our unconscious emotions and feelings, suppressed desires or fears, or our desire to convert all of this mental information into a comprehensible narrative using symbolism.
All this helps explain how fever dreams are the brain’s response to extreme conditions such as illness, infection, or disease.
As part of the body’s inflammatory response, you experience a fever when your body temperature rises above its normal temperature of 98.6° F (37 C) in an attempt to fight off germs using heat.
In addition to several unpleasant and painful physical symptoms, high fevers also negatively affect your cognition and sleep, particularly a disruption in REM sleep.
As you try to sleep off a fever, your brain is trying to process the pain, distress, fear, and other adverse physical, emotional, and mental sensations you are currently going through. These intense feelings are experienced by a mind adversely affected by an abnormally high body temperature.
Fever dreams, therefore, are your brain trying to make sense of what is happening to you while you are sick and sleeping. Your mind feels confused and distressed, your body is weak and aching, and your temperature is too hot. These feelings are reflected in your sleep, creating an unsettling and intense dream with disturbing symbolism.
What Do Fever Dreams Mean?
Many theories exist about the meaning of dreams as a whole. As with fever dreams, there is much debate in the arena of sleep science on this subject and not a lot of consensuses.
However, the meanings of fever dreams are somewhat simpler to figure out: you are sick and uncomfortable, and these dreams are your brain’s natural response to those feelings. The symbolism of the dreams themselves tends to reflect the illness state and nothing more.
By itself, experiencing a fever dream is nothing to be alarmed about. Like any other dream, it allows your brain to process the emotions and physical sensations you are going through. Fever dreams are disconcerting but not harmful, and they will pass as soon as your fever breaks.
Getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated, and taking fever-lowering medication as recommended by your healthcare provider may help prevent fever dreams by shortening the duration of the fever.
However, if you are experiencing a dangerously high fever or another medical emergency, call 911 or immediately go to your nearest hospital. Babies and children with temperatures of 102.2° F should see a doctor immediately. Fevers are less threatening for adults than for children, but temperatures of 104° F (40° C) or higher are still dangerous and require prompt medical attention.