Understanding Fever in Children

Overcome fever phobia to treat fevers appropriately

Father taking temperature of sick son

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Despite what some may tell you, 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.

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. In fact, most experts don't consider a temperature to be a true fever in children until it reaches 100.4 F (38 C).

Symptoms

Fever is a symptom of many childhood illnesses, such as the flu, strep throat, and non-infectious conditions, and can accompany other signs and symptoms, including:

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

When fever symptoms are altering a child's activity level, their ability to sleep, behavior, or appetite, fever-reducing medications may be a good idea. As the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states, "the primary goal of treating the febrile child should be to improve the child's overall comfort."

Understanding Fever in Children

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. That is likely surprising to parents who have learned to treat fever like an illness, but it makes sense when you understand that fever is just another symptom, like a cough or a runny nose.

Most importantly, parents need to understand that their child's temperature doesn't tell them how sick their child is. A child could have a very high fever with a mild illness or have a low-grade fever with a life-threatening illness.

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 and being inconsolable would likely be better signs that your child needed immediate medical attention, instead of the number on the temperature.

Still, 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 simply worried about your child's temperature.

Overcoming Fever Phobia

Fever phobia, an exaggerated fear of fever, is common among parents even though pediatricians have been trying to combat it for more than 30 years. Education is the key to overcoming these fears. Among some of the things a parent should understand when a child gets a fever:

  • Fever, even a high fever, does not cause brain damage.
  • Fever may have beneficial effects in helping to fight infections.
  • Both 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.
  • While worrisome, febrile fevers are generally mild and non-life-threatening. Despite what some people may tell you, febrile seizures cannot be prevented with fever reducers.
  • Unless directed by your doctor, you should not wake a child at night to give them a fever reducer.
  • When speaking with a pediatrician, tell them how you took the temperature. Ear temperature readings are higher than oral temperatures, for example, while armpit temperatures are lower than oral temperatures.

A Word From Verywell

In the end, fever-reducing medications can be useful if the fever is affecting your child's well being. But if your child seems fine, there's no need to give medication just for fever. Some experts worry that fever phobia can lead parents to overdose children when the drugs may not be needed.

For its part, the AAP doesn't advise against the use of over-the-counter drugs like children's Tylenol or Advil but instead advises parents to use them appropriately. If in doubt, call your pediatrician or speak with your pharmacist.

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Article Sources

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