Understanding Fever in Children

Overcome fever phobia to treat fevers appropriately

While fevers can be concerning for parents, an elevated temperature is not always a fever. Although 98.6 F (37.0 C) has long been the standard definition of a normal body temperature, that doesn't mean that any number above 98.6 F is a sign of trouble.

Father taking temperature of sick son
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Normal temperatures can range from 97.2 F (36.2 C) to 99.5 F (37.5 C) insofar as adults are concerned. Children, especially younger children, can have slightly higher normal temperatures. Most pediatricians consider a temperature of 100.4 F (38 C) in children to be a fever.

Symptoms

Fever is a symptom of many childhood illnesses, such as the flu, strep throat, and non-infectious conditions.

Fevers often accompany other signs and symptoms, including:

  • Decreased activity
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Decreased appetite
  • Irritability
  • Chills
  • Shivering
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Hallucinations
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Dehydration

When to Treat?

A fever can occur with an infection that will resolve on its own. If your child has a fever but doesn't really feel bad and is sleeping well, is in a good mood, and is drinking well, then you don't necessarily need to give him a fever reducer.

But sometimes, it can be a sign that your child needs medical treatment.

If fever symptoms appear to be affecting your child's behavior, activity level, ability to sleep, or appetite, you can consider giving your child medication to reduce their fever. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states, "the primary goal of treating the febrile child should be to improve the child's overall comfort."

Tips for treating your child's fever:

  • Children's strength Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Advil (ibuprofen) are effective at reducing a child's fever. But aspirin should be avoided in children or teens due to the risk of Reye syndrome.
  • Parents should avoid cough-and-cold medications that contain acetaminophen or ibuprofen. In some cases, parents can accidentally double up on fever medications without even knowing it.
  • Unless directed by your doctor, you should not wake a child at night to give them a fever reducer.

Getting Medical Attention

Other symptoms, in addition to the fever, such as being lethargic, not eating or drinking anything, having symptoms of dehydration, having trouble breathing, or crying inconsolably are signs that your child needed immediate medical attention.

  • Your child's temperature may vary slightly depending on where you measured (armpit vs. under the tongue, for example).
  • When speaking with a pediatrician, tell them how you took your child's temperature.

Call your pediatrician right away if your baby who is under two to three months old has a rectal temperature at or above 100.4 F or if you are worried about your child's temperature.

Understanding Fever in Children

Your child's temperature is not a way to measure how sick they are. A child could have a very high fever with a mild illness or have a low-grade fever with a life-threatening illness.

A fever may have beneficial effects in helping to fight infections, so it's often a sign that your child's immune system is working the way it's supposed to work.

Overcoming Fever Phobia

Fever phobia, an exaggerated fear of fever, is common among parents. It's understandable that you may be very concerned when your child has a high fever. But a fever itself is no reason to panic. With treatment for the underlying cause, your child will likely recover and feel better within a few days.

Some important and reassuring facts you should know:

  • Fevers do not cause brain damage.
  • While worrisome, febrile seizures are generally mild and non-life-threatening.
  • Febrile seizures cannot be prevented with fever reducers.

A Word From Verywell

Fever-reducing medications can be useful if a fever is affecting your child's well-being. But if your child seems fine, there's no need to give medication just for fever.

The AAP advises that parents can use over-the-counter drugs like children's Tylenol or Advil, but warns parents not to overuse them. If in doubt, call your pediatrician or speak with your pharmacist.

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Article Sources
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  1. Sullivan JE, Farrar HC. Fever and antipyretic use in children. Pediatrics. 2011;127(3):580-7. doi:10.1542/peds.2010-3852

  2. Chapman J, Arnold JK. Reye syndrome. In: StatPearls. Updated January 17, 2019.

  3. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Febrile seizures fact sheet. June 16, 2021