What to Do if Your Child Has a Fever

Mother taking care of sick 6 year old child
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Parents often worry when their child gets a fever—and understandably so. You never want to see your child ill or spiking a temperature that could be a sign of something concerning. But research actually shows that many parents may get over-concerned by or overreact to 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.  

It is important to remember fever is a symptom, much like a cough, runny nose, or a sore throat. And most importantly, the degree of fever doesn't tell you how sick your child is.

What Is a Fever?

Fever is a rise in your child's body temperature above normal levels. The American Academy of Pediatrics describes fever as "a positive sign that the body is fighting infection." Fever is thought to help interfere with the growth of some infections and help boost the body's immune system response.

Fever occurs in response to certain fever-inducing substances called pyrogens. These are either substances already inside the body that are released by cells in response to infections, or they are germs that cause infection, including bacteria, viruses, and toxins. In response to the pyrogens, chemicals inside your child's body work to raise the body's thermostat.

Though normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees F, your child technically has a fever only when the thermometer reads 100.4 degrees F or above.

Causes

Most parents think 'infection' when their child has a fever, but it is important to keep in mind that various conditions cause fever.

Conditions that cause fever include:

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 of fever, keep in mind that simple viral infections are the most common cause of most fevers in children. It is, however, a good idea 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.

Although temporal thermometers (which you simply scan across your child's forehead, even when they are sleeping) and 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 much less costly but do take 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 he or she is 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), although ibuprofen is usually only given to infants over 6 months of age.

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

Be sure your child is drinking extra fluids. He or she 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 with these treatments. But you should call the pediatrician if your child seems sick (e.g., has trouble breathing, is lethargic, has a severe headache) and when:

  • An infant under 2 to 3 months old has a temperature at or above 100.4 degrees F
  • An infant that is 3 to 6 months old has a temperature at or above 101 degrees F
  • An infant 6 to 12 months old has a temperature at or above 103 degrees F
  • A child over 12 months old has a temperature at or above 103 degrees F and the fever does not improve with home remedies and a fever reducer

When to Go to the ER

Though less common, there are times where a fever means a serious infection. If you cannot reach your pediatrician for advice as to whether or not to head to the emergency room, follow these guidelines:

  • 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 difficultly waking up, problems with breathing, a rash, vomiting, and/or non-stop crying.
  • Ages 3 months to 3 years: Children ages 3 months to 3 years should be taken to the ER for temperatures of 102.2 degrees F or higher. 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 child who a temperature of 102 degrees F for two or more days needs immediate medical attention. 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 emergency room. Lastly, 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 emergency room.

    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 he or she:

    • Is still eating and drinking well
    • Is alert and happy
    • Is still playing
    • Has normal skin color
    • Looks well when the fever has subsided

    Even if your child is not eating well, as long as they are eating something, taking in fluids, and urinating, chances are a trip to the emergency room isn’t necessary.

    When to Call 911

    Immediate medical attention is necessary in 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 100.5 degrees F, for example, should certainly get your attention. But it is not necessarily reason for panic. Unless your child has heat stroke, it is unlikely that your child's temperature will get high enough to be dangerous.

    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 isn't something to be ignored. Keep the above in mind when deciding on next steps, but always seek the advice of a physician if you're just not sure what to do.

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