Parents are wired to beware of fever in their children. But their fear often is misplaced.
According to Melissa Arca, a pediatrician writing on KevinMD.com, a moderately elevated temperature is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it can be beneficial. Lots of kid problems cause fever — the flu, colds, croup, ear infections…. The better you understand the reasons a child is feverish, and the purpose fever serves, the better you will be able to determine a minor problem from one that your doctor should address.
Arca offers four fever facts that should help you tell the difference between one that needs hot soup, and one that needs a doctor’s care.
1. Fever is a symptom, not a disease.
Fever is a reaction to illness. It’s a warning to rest and drink fluids. Treating your child’s fever won’t “cure” whatever infection he or she is fighting. “Think of it like disabling your car’s ‘oil change needed’ light,” Arca suggests. “Sure, you can turn off that light but it doesn’t negate the fact that your car’s oil still needs changing.”
Even if you suppress the fever — for example, with ibuprofen — the child still needs time to rest and recover from the infection.
2. Fever can wax and wane for three or four days.
Most fevers persist for a few days before they completely depart. So even if you treat it with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, expect it to recur after a few hours. That’s normal.
3. The number on the thermometer is not as important as how your child looks and feels.
Arca knows that most parents get a little panicked when their child’s temperature reaches 103 or 104. But that number does not communicate the seriousness of the illness. So resist the panic. Give the child a fever reducer for comfort and keep him or her well-hydrated. Fever makes the heart beat faster and increases the child’s insensible water loss (fluids lost through the skin and respiratory tract). Keep a bottle of water by the bed, and anywhere else your child is resting.
Remember, the goal is to help the child feel better, not to get rid of the fever.
4. A true fever is a temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher.
Children’s temperatures naturally fluctuate throughout the day. So knowing what is a true fever is important.
In summary, resist the urge to treat a slight temperature elevation. Remember, says the National Institutes of Health, fever is an important part of the body's defense against infection because most bacteria and viruses that cause infections in people thrive at 98.6 °F. Many infants and children develop high fevers with minor viral illnesses, and although that’s a signal of the body waging battle, the fever is a weapon favoring the child. So unless you’re dealing with a temperature of 102°F or higher fever, let the fever run its course and provide comfort through fluids.
Brain damage from a fever generally doesn’t occur with fever less than 107.6 °F (42 °C). Untreated fevers caused by infection seldom exceed 105 °F unless the child is overdressed or trapped in a hot place.
Arca says these red flags demand a pediatrician’s intervention:
- infants younger than 3 months with rectal temperatures of 100.4°F or higher;
- fever that persists more than five days;
- your child just doesn’t look well, is having difficulty breathing or has had a febrile seizure (one caused by fever);
- your child’s fever is 105°F or higher. Although such a high temperature usually isn’t harmful, it merits a call to the pediatrician and the right dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
Because acetaminophen, especially, can be harmful to youngsters, see our blog about proper dosages here.