What to Do if Your Child Has a Fever

Parents often worry when their child gets a fever—and understandably so. A fever is a symptom, much like a cough, runny nose, or a sore throat. So it can be an indication that your child may need medical attention.

Find out more about what you need to do when your child has a fever.

Mother taking care of sick 6 year old child
Tim Hale / Photolibrary / Getty Images 

Research shows that many parents may get over-concerned by their kids' fevers. This happens often enough, in fact, that there's a term for it: fever phobia. One 2016 study finds that it is very common among parents of all backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses.

  

What Is a Fever?

Fever is a rise in body temperature above normal levels. The American Academy of Pediatrics describes fever as "a positive sign that the body is fighting infection." An increase in body temperature interferes with the growth of some infections and helps boost the body's immune system response.

Fever occurs in response to certain fever-inducing substances called pyrogens. These include germs that cause infection, including bacteria, viruses, and toxins, as well as substances already inside the body that are released by cells in response to infections, Pyrogens cause a rise in the body's temperature.

A normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees F, and your child would be considered as having a fever when the thermometer reads 100.4 degrees F or above.

Causes

Most parents think of infection when their child has a fever, but sometimes other conditions can cause a fever.

Childhood fevers can be caused by:

Fever can also be a side effect of medication use (drug fever), a blood transfusion, or vaccines.

Even though this is a long list of possible causes, simple viral infections are the most common cause of childhood fevers. And the degree of fever doesn't tell you how sick your child is. It is important to see your pediatrician if your child has a prolonged fever or frequent fevers.

Taking Your Child's Temperature

There are many types of thermometers, and which you use largely comes down to circumstance and personal preference.

Options include:

  • To use a temporal thermometer, you would scan it across your child's forehead, and you can use it even when they are sleeping.
  • Ear thermometers are becoming popular among parents because they are fast and easy to use. They can be expensive.
  • More simple, mercury-free digital thermometers are usually less costly, but it takes longer to get a reading, which can be a problem if you have a fussy child who won't stay still.
  • Rectal thermometers may be preferred in certain cases, such as when an infant is very ill.

Whichever you choose, be sure that you know how to properly use it so you get an accurate reading.

Treatment

If your child does indeed have a fever, you may want to consider giving an over-the-counter (OTC) fever reducer if they are irritable or uncomfortable. If fever isn't bothering your child, this isn't necessary.

Common fever reducers you can give to children include Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Motrin or Advil (ibuprofen). Ibuprofen is usually only given to infants over 6 months of age.

Aspirin should not be given to a child or teen, as it may trigger a rare, possibly fatal condition called Reye’s syndrome

Be sure your child is drinking extra fluids. They may also feel more comfortable after taking a lukewarm sponge bath and changing into lighter clothing.

When to Call the Pediatrician

You can usually treat your child’s fever at home. You should call the pediatrician if your child seems sick, has trouble breathing, is lethargic, or has a severe headache.

When to call the pediatrician:

  • An infant under 3 months old has a temperature at or above 100.4 degrees F
  • For children ages 3 to 12 months with temperatures of 102.2 degrees F or higher
  • The fever does not improve with home remedies and a fever reducer after one day in babies and after 3 days in children over the age of 2

When to Go to the ER

Though less common, there are times when a fever means a serious infection and requires emergency treatment. 

Reasons to head to the emergency room (ER):

  • Newborns to age 3 months: A baby under 3 months should be taken to the ER for a temperature of 100.4 degrees F or higher or a fever accompanied by difficulty waking up, problems with breathing, a rash, vomiting, and/or non-stop crying.
  • Ages 3 to 12 months: Babies and toddlers who are unable to keep fluids down, are not urinating, have difficulty waking up, are inconsolable, have a rash, and/or have breathing problems need emergency care. A child who is not up-to-date on vaccinations should also be taken to the ER for a high fever.
  • Ages 3 and up:  A fever accompanied by breathing or swallowing problems, problems with urination, abdominal pain, rash, stiff neck, and/or problems with waking up warrants a trip to the ER. A child age 3 or older who is behind on vaccinations with a fever that has lasted for two or more days should be taken to an ER.

With older children, you can make a determination on whether a trip to the ER is necessary based on their behavior and activity level. Your child’s behavior can give you a good idea of how sick they may be. 

Your child’s fever is probably not concerning if they:

  • Are still eating and drinking well
  • Are urinating
  • Are alert and happy
  • Are still playing
  • Have normal skin color

When to Call 911

Immediate medical attention is necessary for certain situations.

Call for an ambulance if your child:

  • Cannot be awakened
  • Seems confused
  • Cannot walk or is struggling to move
  • Is having severe breathing struggles
  • Has blue lips, tongue, or nails
  • Has a very bad headache
  • Has a seizure

A Word From Verywell

Seeing a thermometer register a fever should certainly get your attention. But it is not necessarily a reason for panic.

If your child experiences fever with other symptoms—sore throat or rash, for example—you should call their doctor to see if a visit is warranted. Persistent and frequent fevers, with or without additional symptoms, should also be brought to the attention of your child’s doctor.

All of this said, a parent's gut-check is always important. Always seek the advice of a physician if you're just not sure what to do.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gunduz S, Usak E, Koksal T, Canbal M. Why Fever Phobia Is Still Common? Iran Red Crescent Med J. 2016;18(8):e23827. doi:10.5812/ircmj.23827

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Fever and Your Baby. Updated August 3, 2016.

  3. Torreggiani S, Filocamo G, Esposito S. Recurrent Fever in Children. Int J Mol Sci. 2016;17(4):448. doi:10.3390/ijms17040448

  4. InformedHealth.org. Fever in Children: Overview. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2013.

  5. InformedHealth.org. Fever in children: When to see a doctor. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2009.

  6. MedlinePlus. When your baby or infant has a fever. Updated February 13, 2020.

Additional Reading

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
 Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.