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Does teething cause a fever? Find out what’s fact and what’s fiction.

March 03, 2016

One of the most challenging aspects of caring for young children is simply not knowing if and when something is wrong with them. Infants and toddlers can’t communicate what they’re feeling or what may be bothering them, so it often becomes a guessing game when parents sense something isn’t right. Is my baby sick? Is she teething? Does she have an earache? Is she constipated? We’re constantly looking for clues that may indicate what’s going on. 

A new study published in the journal Pediatrics may help us solve one of these longstanding parenting problems. 

Does a fever tell you that baby is teething?

Researchers looked at data from 16 different studies from a variety of countries that were published over the last 45 years. Their goal was to determine which signs and symptoms are related to teething and which aren’t. And while it can’t be determined with 100% accuracy because these studies were each conducted by different healthcare providers in separate settings with unique criteria, looking over the data as a whole can give us a better clue about what is happening when a child is teething. 

This study shows that there are some reliable indicators of a baby’s teething. Redness, swelling and tenderness around the gums tends to occur, especially in the back of the mouth. Also, general symptoms such as irritability and drooling are common, and the symptoms tend to be less troublesome as the child grows older. 

Perhaps the most telling from the list of these symptoms, though, is what it does not include- fever. 

Researchers determined that although a slight increase in a baby’s body temperature was documented around the time a tooth was coming in, the increased temperature was not enough to be considered a fever. 

If that last statement made you do a double take, you aren’t alone. Wait, you may be thinking, isn’t a fever by definition an increase in body temperature? How can an increase in body temperature not be a fever? It’s because a fever is characterized as a body temperature of 100.4F or greater. A body temperature below 100.4F is not a fever. 

Read more about how to identify and treat a fever, here. 

What does this mean for you and your baby?

What we can glean from this large-scale review is that there are some reliable indicators of teething: redness, swelling and irritation of the gums along with drooling and irritability. Other things that are often associated with teething- fever, runny nose, sleep disturbances, diarrhea-  are not as closely linked to teething as many of us probably believe them to be.

Although a child who is teething may also have a runny nose at the same time, it doesn’t mean the runny nose is caused by teething. Remember, infants and toddlers are likely to experience teething, and they are also likely to experience cold viruses that cause runny noses. Both can occur frequently at this age and independently of one another. Simply because they occur simultaneously doesn’t mean that one caused the other.

A similar relationship appears to be true for teething and fever. While they can occur simultaneously, it doesn’t mean that teething causes fever. Most children don’t experience a fever when teething; instead some may have a slight increase in body temperature (a thermometer reading of less than 100.4F). And that is good news for one reason: it helps us narrow down what is wrong with a fussy baby if we know what’s not wrong with them. 

If your baby is fussy and irritable, and your thermometer shows a reading less than 100.4F, you might suspect teething as a possible cause. Check his teeth and gums for redness, swelling or irritation to confirm your suspicions. You may find that offering him a cool teething ring, allowing him to gnaw a washcloth chilled in the freezer or massaging his sensitive gums helps ease the pain.

However, if your baby is fussy and irritable, and your thermometer shows that he has a temperature greater than 100.4F, an illness may be the cause, rather than teething. In this case, incorrectly assuming your baby’s fever is a result of teething may prevent or delay proper care. When you’re able to recognize a fever as a symptom of illness or infection, this allows you to better respond to your baby’s needs and care for him appropriately. 

Related link: How to treat your child’s fever