Fever Dreams Are Freaky! Here's Why They're Also Totally Normal

by Becky Bracken
Originally Published: 
fever dreams, girl having a nightmare

If you’ve ever been plagued by intense dreams nightmares while sick, you may have experienced a fever dream. These terrifying and bizarre dreams take on a different element of dark and spooky when running a fever, and adults and children alike can experience them. Most everyone has suffered through a fever dream, but watching your kid go through one is a whole new level of awful. It’s hard enough to keep a sick kid hydrated and comfortable, much less get them to sleep. But once those little eyelashes flutter closed their precious shuteye can be interrupted by a fever dream without a moment’s notice.

Physically, a fever causes sweating, chills, weakness, and a variety of other symptoms, but elevated body temperature also affects thinking and sleep. A study from 2020 conducted by mental health experts Michael Schredl and Daniel Erlacher and published in Frontiers in Pyshology magazine puts a bit of science behind fever dreams. Notably, they found fever dreams do tend to be more frightening than others and identified areas where more research is necessary. If you or your little one are experiencing these nightmares while sick, here’s some key information on what they mean and what you can do about it.

What are fever dreams?

“Fever dreams were more bizarre and more negatively toned and included more references to health and temperature perception compared to ‘normal’ most recent dreams,” the Schredle and Erlacher report said. That means negative dreams associated with being hot or cold were common in people suffering from a fever.

But why? Higher temperatures (like during a fever) can increase the speed at which neurons transmit signals in the body, thus increasing their activity. This neuron activity also affects the amyglada, the part of our brain responsible for feelings of fear and anxiety that is especially active during REM sleep. This heightened activity in the amygdala results in more intense, bizarre, and scary dreams.

In a previous fever dream study from 2016 conducted by Schredl, 94 percent of subjects described their fever dreams as “negative” and more “emotionally intense” than usual and they described threats including huge insects and creatures with “oversized arms and legs and darkness, slowly spreading all over,” Time reported.

“This study is the first that takes a closer look on fever dreams and the results indicate that fever has an effect on the cognitive processing of the sleeping brain,” Schredl concluded at the time. The report noted that elevated body temperatures mess with the brain’s ability to think, or as the report puts it, “…the brain is not functioning well during a high fever.”

Fever also interrupts rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the state where dreaming happens. “REM sleep is essential to temperature control … fever suppresses REM,” Dr. J. Allan Hobson, a Harvard Medical School sleep researcher explained to Time.

Besides the physical causes, fever dreams could be inspired by what Schredl calls the “continuity hypothesis,” a link between a person’s mood when they’re awake in their dreams. In other words, when you feel crappy, you tend to dream crappy, too. Fever dreams also had more health-related themes than normal dreams, Schredl added.

Types of Fever Dreams

  • Bizarre and emotionally intense
  • Elements of spatial distortion
  • Falling feeling or sensation of falling into darkness
  • Nightmarish creatures

Fever Dream Meaning

If an adult awakes after a fever dream, they have a better understanding of what transpired and that this dream was just that, a dream. But fever dreams, or nightmares, according to Johns Hopkins could cause a child to wake suddenly, scream, sweat, appear confused, cause rapid heart rate and often they have little to no recallection of the dream. Johns Hopkins advises parents and caretakers of kids with fever dreams to try to avoid waking them.

“Make soothing comments,” the medical center notes on its website. “Hold your child if it seems to help him or her feel better. Shaking or shouting at your child may cause the child to become more upset.” And while fever dreams can be traumatic for parents, it’s important to try and be a calming presence and to, “comfort, reassure, and cuddle your child.”

Like so many things, there’s really nothing you can do to help kids through fever dreams but hold their hand and be there. If you’re worried it’s more than just a common fever dream and wondering whether to seek medical attention, Johns Hopkins suggests the things to watch for that could signal danger include:

  • Drooling
  • Jerking or stiffening of the body
  • A terror that lasts longer than 30 minutes
  • Or if the child does something dangerous during a nightmare

Moving forward, Schredl suggests more research into the cause of fever dreams, but until then, we just have to ride it out. “This research helps to shed light on the interaction between the physiological level (brain activation) and the psychological level of subjective experiences,” Schredl wrote.

For the most part, scary dreams commonly come along with a fever and there’s likely nothing to worry about. Of course, that’s easier said than in the middle of the night. Try and get some rest and and take all the necessary steps to lower your or your child’s fever.

Can you prevent fever dreams?

Fever dreams are intense, so if you want to avoid them, we get it. Here are a few ways to keep your dreams calm and collected. First, your body temperature is a huge factor. Make sure the bedroom is cool before going to sleep. If you’re nursing a fever, drink a lot of fluids, eat digestible foods, take a warm shower, and medicine that’ll help break the fever before going to bed. Taking a few naps throughout the day may also help you feel more rested when going to sleep.

Are fever dreams like lucid dreams?

Fever dreams and lucid dreams usually have different causes, but they do have a few similarities. For example, fever dreams are usually caused by being too warm during sleep or feeling ill. However, when people usually have a lucid or fever dream, they find them easy to remember. Both types of dreams take place during the REM stage of the sleep cycle. And sometimes a fever dream can become a lucid dream.

Can a fever dream be good?

One of the positives of fever dreams is that they usually occur during REM sleep, which means your arm and legs are less likely to toss and turn during your snooze. Fever dreams may not be enjoyable, but it’s a chance for your body to rest and recover from whatever illness you’re dealing with.

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