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Fighting a Fever without Fear

February 16, 2012

Many parents worry when their child is having a fever. We know that fevers can be scary for parents, especially if it is your child’s first fever. It may be difficult to think clearly and make important decisions when your child feels very warm. Learning what causes a fever and how to take care of your child when it occurs can help relieve some stress and anxiety.

What is a fever?

Your child’s normal body temperature with vary based on age, activity, and time of day.  Infants tend to have higher temperatures than older children. Usually, our body’s temperature is the highest in the late afternoon and early evening. Each person has his or her own internal “thermostat” that helps to regulate their own body temperature, and this number is around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, plus or minus one degree. When your body detects an infection or illness in your body, your brain responds by raising its temperature to help fight the condition. Many conditions can be associated with fever, such as ear infections, croup, pneumonia, sore throat, influenza, urinary tract infections, meningitis, and many different viral illnesses.

If you think your child has a fever, make sure to take the temperature with a thermometer. Keep a digital thermometer at home, so you have it handy as soon as you need it. Feeling your child’s skin with your hand is not always accurate in detecting a fever, especially if your child is having chills. For babies, the most accurate temperature is a rectal temperature, and a rectal temperature greater than 100.4F is generally considered a fever. If your baby is under two months old and has a rectal temperature of 100.4F or higher, then you should call your pediatrician immediately. Young babies do not have fully developed immune systems, so it is necessary for your pediatrician to rule out any serious infection or disease.

Why do we develop fevers?

It’s important to remember that fever is a symptom, not an illness itself. When your child has a fever, it can actually be a good sign that his or her body is fighting an infection from a bacteria or virus. As the body’s temperature increases, the elevated temperature can slow down the bacteria or virus from multiplying, and it helps our body’s white blood cells attack the bacteria or virus. Fever can be your friend; it can help your child fight an infection.

Even though a fever is helpful, it can also make your child feel very uncomfortable. A fever will increase your child’s need for fluids and can make his heart rate and breathing rate faster. You will need to give your child more fluids to avoid dehydration. When your child has a fever, you will want to see if he or she is still acting normally, or if they have developed any other symptoms such as difficulty breathing, cough, eating or drinking less, vomiting, diarrhea, or urinating less frequently. We want to help treat symptoms, and not necessarily just a number on a thermometer if your child is otherwise behaving like his or her usual self.

What should I do if my child has a fever?

When your child has a fever, there are a few things that you can do to help him or her feel better. Giving acetaminophen or ibuprofen (if your child is over 6 months old) can help reduce a fever. Make sure you are giving the appropriate dose of medication, and if your child is under the age of two years old, please contact your pediatrician or pharmacist for the appropriate dose. A fever will also make your child lose fluids faster, so make sure to offer plenty of fluids so that your child will not become dehydrated. Your child may not feel like eating regular food when he or she has a fever, but that’s ok for the day, as long as he or she continues to drink plenty of fluids.

There are a few things that you don’t want to do, such as overdressing your child, or giving alcohol baths. Your child can actually absorb alcohol through the skin; so don’t give them an alcohol bath. When you do bathe your child, use lukewarm water and not cold water. Even though your child feels hot, don’t use cold water to make them cooler because that can make the fever worse – the body will think it is cold and can start shivering, which can actually try to raise the body temperature!

When should I call my pediatrician?

  • If your child is younger than 4 months old and has a fever
  • If your child is very sleepy or lethargic, not responsive, has a rash, or has difficulty breathing
  • If your child is refusing to drink or eat anything at all
  • If you notice that your child has signs of dehydration – dry mouth or lips, sunken soft spot on the head of your baby, or decreased urination and wet diapers
  • If the fever lasts more than a few days
  • If your child experiences a febrile seizure
Being prepared can help keep the fear out of fever. Keep a thermometer at home, and remember to call your pediatrician or family physician if you have any other concerns. Your pediatrician or family physician will be the best person to guide you on whether or not you can treat your child’s fever at home, or if you need to bring your child into the office, or go to the emergency room.