A fever is formally defined by most doctors as a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) and higher.
Fever in Kids: When to Call the Doctor
Temperature is maintained by a special part of the brain known as the hypothalamus. When your child has a fever, the body temporarily resets its “thermostat” at a higher temperature. Fever is actually a normal physiologic response that actually helps the body to fight infection more effectively.
Chemicals called cytokines, produced by the body in response to viral or bacterial invasion, cause the temperature to increase.
Fever inhibits the replication of viruses and bacteria and enhances the body’s natural immune response that actually helps the body recover more quickly.
Fever is common in young children, as their immune system is not fully mature yet. Most fevers in children are caused by viruses. A much smaller number are due to bacteria, which cause a local infection like ear infections or strep throat.
Prolonged fever can be a sign of underlying diseases, so it is important to check with your child's doctor.
Fever makes the body work harder. Your child’s heart rate will go up, and they will breathe faster. This might make your child:
- Feel tired
- Become fussy, cranky
- Shiver, develop red cheeks, cold hands and feet
- Complain of headache
- Have a decreased appetite
Treating your child's fever will not help the body get rid of the infection any faster; it simply will relieve discomfort associated with fever.
Children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years can develop seizures from fever (called febrile seizures). If your child does have a febrile seizure, there is a chance that the seizure may occur again, but, usually, children outgrow the febrile seizures. A febrile seizure does not mean your child has epilepsy. There is no evidence that treating the fever will reduce the risk of having a febrile seizure.
Specific treatment for a fever will be determined by your child’s doctor based on:
- Your child's age, overall health, and medical history
- Extent of the condition
- Your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures or therapies
- Expectations for the course of the disease
- Your opinion or preference
Administer an anti-fever medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. DO NOT give your child aspirin, as it has been linked to a serious, potentially fatal disease, called Reye syndrome.
Other ways to reduce a fever:
- Dress your child lightly. Excess clothing will trap body heat and cause the temperature to rise.
- Encourage your child to drink plenty of fluids, such as juices, soda, punch or popsicles.
- Give your child a lukewarm bath. Do not allow your child to shiver from cold water, as this can raise the body temperature. NEVER leave your child unattended in the bathtub.
- Place cold washcloths over areas of the body where the blood vessels are close to the surface of the skin such as the forehead, wrists and groins.
- DO NOT use alcohol baths.
Call your child's doctor immediately if your child is younger than 3 months old and his or her temperature is greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius).
If your child is older than 3 months, call your doctor right away if:
- Your child is crying inconsolably.
- Your child is difficult to awaken.
- Your child has been in a very hot place, such as inside a hot car.
- Your child has a seizure (convulsion).
- Your child has other symptoms such as a severe headache, stiff neck, or an unexplained rash.
- Your child is taking steroids or has an immune system problem, such as cancer.
- Your child looks or acts very sick.
- The fever rises repeatedly to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) or higher.
- Your child has severe vomiting or diarrhea.
Call your child's doctor if any of the following conditions are present:
- Your child is 2 years or younger, and the fever persists for more than 24 hours.
- Your child is older than 2 years and has had a fever more than 72 hours.
- Your child seems to be getting worse or still acts sick when the fever comes down.
- You have other concerns or questions.