Can high fever cause brain damage & mental illness?

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

Q. This is painful for me to write about, because of the fears i have that i really may be schizophrenic, but here goes! i am a 35 year old female veteran of the US Armed Forces. i joined when i was 25, with no prior history of mental illness. i moved successfully through bootcamp and my schools, although during the last phase of training, and before my first duty station, i became pregnant. i decided not to terminate this pregnancy (much to the chagrin of my family), and place this child with a loving adoptive couple who could not bear any themselves. unfortunately, during the delivery of this child, i developed some kind of “blood infection” which, thankfully, did not hurt the baby, but almost killed me. i was sent home from the hospital before the illness was discovered, and was rescued a day later by my friend who found me vomiting and hallucinating. i don’t remember much of that at all, just waking later in the hospital. the doctors later told me that i had been admitted with a temperature of 105.9, and amnesia like symptoms. then, i had a middle of the night breathing emergency, which was caused by the blood clots (from the blood infection) that settled in my lungs. long story short, i had to take a lot of medication for a long time to recover from this horrible experience. could this high fever have caused me brain damage which is causing mental illness? after this happened, i began having anxiety and depression problems, along with many other health problems. i was discharged from the military, after 5 years of service, with benefits, but i seem only to be getting worse! i have had numerous suicide attempts and hospitalizations, diagnoses and therapists. some have even suggested that i am suffering guilt for “giving my baby away”, but i know this is not the case. i went through a reputable adoption agency, chose his family, met them, can go see him anytime i want, and they send me photos and letters all the time. my symptoms and illnesses seem to get worse as time goes on, also. recently, i have even become paranoid. but i am not sure if this is me, or if my significant other is responsible for it. i just can’t seem to be able to tell what is reality anymore. can you help me at all?

A. Thank you for sharing your personal information with me. However, what you did share is unfortunately not enough for me to determine if you do have schizophrenia or the high fever caused your current mental health problems. It would be hard to know from a short e-mail. The question you asked is very complex. I can tell you that from my studies of schizophrenia, in almost every case, the illness was precipitated by some emotional event; drugs, pregnancy, divorce, and so forth. This indicates that the disease has a strong psychological component. If the disease were purely organic in nature, the disease would surface (if it were going to) no matter what external events were occurring in one’s life.

I do not know if you are suffering from schizophrenia now but it is certainly possible that this event could bring on schizophrenic episodes, or the psychotic symptoms you are describing. In my opinion, I do believe that the life threatening event which occurred as a result of your pregnancy could trigger the symptoms you have experienced since the event and seem to be currently experiencing. I believe, as you do, that it has nothing to do with you “giving your baby away.” From what you wrote, your decision to give your baby up for adoption was well informed and made under perfectly reasonable and rational thinking processes. I must reiterate that it would be impossible for me to know, without interviewing you extensively, if this event did cause your mental health problems-and even then I may still not know conclusively since it is a very complex issue. While I cannot know for sure, I do believe it is likely this event helped to trigger your current mental health problems.

I am sorry that you are suffering with these frightening psychotic symptoms. It must be hell on earth to experience paranoia and hallucinations. Knowing the cause of your current mental health problems, however, is less important than getting good treatment. I would encourage you to find good help, a good psychiatrist and to surround yourself with supportive people if possible. Good help, the right medication and a supportive network of people can help to desist or reduce your psychotic symptoms, live a better quality of life and can improve your prognosis. Finding the right antipsychotic medications in particular can help eliminate your psychotic symptoms. I know that antipsychotic medications are not benign but it is the best modern science can offer at this time. I hope this helps to shed some light on your situation. If you have any more questions and want further explanation about my answer to your question, please write again. Take care and please write again to keep me updated on how you are doing.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 26 Aug 2006

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2006). Can high fever cause brain damage & mental illness?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2006/08/26/can-high-fever-cause-brain-damage-mental-illness/