Winter may be the germiest of seasons, when viruses run rampant and cause fever in kids. Still, children can have fevers during the summer, too, as a symptom of several common summer illnesses, such as hand foot and mouth disease and stomach bugs.
Thankfully, a higher than normal temperature isn’t usually cause for panic. But should you give your child medicine or let a fever run its course? How do you know when it’s time to call the doctor? And what are some of the signs that your child’s fever is more than a simple virus?
To help ease your fever fears, we spoke with Julie Kardos, MD, and Naline Lai, MD, pediatricians at CHOP Primary Care, Newtown, PA ― and co-founders of the Two Peds in a Pod blog ― to get answers to the most common fever questions.
What is fever?
Fever is a sign of illness and a great defense against disease. Your body makes a fever to heat up and kill germs without harming your body.
In medical books, fever is a body temperature equal to or higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Many pediatricians, however, consider 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher as the definition of fever once your child is older than 2 months of age.
If your child is less than 2 months old, you should always take her temperature rectally. Otherwise, you can use any method you prefer, just let your doctor know which you used to determine her temperature.
Should you treat fever?
When your child’s body has succeeded in battling a germ, her fever will go away. A fever reducing agent such as acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (e.g. Motrin®) will decrease her temperature temporarily, but fever will return if your child’s body still needs to kill off more germs.
“There is no need to give a fever reducing agent just for the sake of lowering the fever,” says Dr. Kardos.
Dr. Lai adds: “I don’t recommend treating fever unless your child can’t do the things she needs to do to get better. For example, if fever is keeping your child from drinking or sleeping, go ahead and treat.”
Also, a fever itself does not pose a danger to your child. “Your child’s body will never let a fever get high enough to harm itself or to cause brain damage,” says Dr. Kardos. “Only if your child is experiencing heat stroke (locked in a hot car in July, for example) can your child get hot enough to cause death,” she adds.
Can fever reducing medications prevent febrile seizures?
Some children are prone to seizures when their temperature rises quickly. These are called febrile seizures.
Febrile seizures can run in families and typically occur between the ages of 6 months and 6 years. Often, they occur with the first temperature spike of an illness, before parents even realize their child has a fever.
“While scary to witness, febrile seizures do not cause brain damage,” says Dr. Kardos. “And no study has shown that giving preventative fever reducer medicine decreases the risk of having a febrile seizure.”
If your child has a seizure, though, she should be examined by a healthcare provider, even if you think it was just a simple febrile seizure.
When should you see your child’s pediatrician?
Fever can be a sign of many illnesses. Your child may develop fever with cold viruses, the flu, stomach viruses, pneumonia, sinusitis, meningitis, appendicitis, measles and countless other illnesses. “The trick is knowing how to tell if your child is very ill or just suffering from a simple illness with fever,” says Dr. Kardos.
If your child experiences any of the following, it’s time to see a doctor:
- Any temperature in an infant younger than 8 weeks old that is 100.4 (rectal temp) degrees Fahrenheit or higher needs immediate attention by a healthcare provider, even if your baby appears relatively well
- Any fever that is accompanied by moderate or severe pain, change in mental state (thinking), dehydration (not drinking enough or urinating less than normal), increased effort when breathing, shortness of breath, or a new rash
- A fever that lasts more than three to five days in a row, even if your child appears well
- Recurring fevers
Also, call the pediatrician if your child's fever lasts more than two to three days, or anytime you are concerned about fever.
What can I do to keep my child comfortable with a fever?
- Wipe your child with a cool cloth or give her a tepid bath
- Encourage liquid intake, as hydration is very important
- Avoid dunking your child into cold water or wiping her with alcohol, as these can cause shivering and actually increase your child’s body temperature
- Never give your child aspirin to reduce a fever