When Your Child Has a Fever

“I don’t feel good!” When your child makes this plaintive cry, you may immediately check his temperature. If he has a fever, you may understandably feel alarmed.

According to a study done by The Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A., 91 percent of parents believed that “even a relatively moderate fever could cause at least one harmful effect, such as seizures or brain damage.” The same study shows that “89% of parents gave their child fever-reducing medicines before their child’s temperature reached 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.9 degrees Celsius).”

Just how alarmed should you be when your child develops a fever? And what are the best ways to treat it?

Fever’s Important Role

What causes a fever? Although average normal body temperature is about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit [37°C] (measured orally), a person’s temperature commonly varies throughout the day by a single degree or more. * Your temperature may thus be lower in the morning and higher in the late afternoon. The hypothalamus, at the base of the brain, regulates body temperature, much the way a thermostat does. A fever results when the immune system, apparently in response to an invasion of bacteria or viruses, produces substances in the blood called pyrogens. This causes the hypothalamus to “reset” to a higher level.

While fever can cause discomfort and dehydration, it is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, fevers seem to play a key role in helping the body throw off bacterial and viral infections, according to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. “The viruses that cause colds and other respiratory infections like cool temperatures. By producing  a low-grade fever your body may actually be helping eliminate the virus.” Thus, this authority further states that “reducing low-grade fevers is unnecessary and may hinder your child’s natural healing mechanisms.” Interestingly, one hospital in Mexico even treats certain conditions by elevating the body’s temperature, a treatment called hyperthermia.

Dr. Al Sacchetti of the American College of Emergency Physicians says: “Fever itself is rarely a problem. However it is a sign that infection may be present. Therefore, when a child has a fever, the focus should be on the child, and the possible infection, and not the reading on the thermometer.” The American Academy of Pediatrics notes: “Fevers under 101 degrees Fahrenheit (38.3 degrees Celsius) generally do not need to be treated unless your child is uncomfortable or has a history of febrile convulsions. Even higher temperatures are not in themselves dangerous or significant unless your child has a history of convulsions or a chronic disease. It is more important to watch how your child is behaving. If he is eating and sleeping well, and has periods of playfulness, he probably doesn’t need any treatment.”

How to Treat a Mild Fever

This does not mean there is nothing you can do to assist your child. Some medical experts give the following recommendations for treating a mild fever: Keep your child’s room comfortably cool. Dress the child lightly. (Overheating can aggravate the fever.) Encourage the child to take in extra fluids, such as water, diluted fruit juices, and soup, because fever can lead to dehydration. * (Drinks containing caffeine, such as colas or black tea, are diuretics and might cause further dehydration.) Infants  should continue to be breast-fed. Avoid foods difficult to digest, as a fever decreases stomach activity.

When a child’s fever goes higher than 102 degrees Fahrenheit [38.9°C], an over-the-counter fever-reducing medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, is often given. It is important, though, that the dosage on the label be followed. (Children under two years of age should not be given any medication without the advice of a doctor.) Fever-reducing medications are not antiviral. Therefore, they do not speed up a child’s recovery from a cold or other illnesses like that, but they may alleviate discomfort. Some experts recommend that aspirin not be given to children under 16 to reduce a fever, as it has been linked to Reye’s syndrome​—a potentially life-threatening illness. *

A sponge bath can also reduce a fever. Sit the child in a tub of one to two inches of lukewarm water, and sponge him off. (Do not use rubbing alcohol, as it can be toxic.)

The accompanying box has some helpful information about when one might decide to call a doctor. Medical attention is particularly important for someone who lives in an area where such virulent fevers as dengue, Ebola virus, typhoid fever, or yellow fever are prevalent.

By and large, then, your best course of action is to make your child more comfortable. Remember that it is rare for a fever to be high enough to cause neurological damage or death. Even fever-induced seizures, while alarming, usually produce no lasting effects.

Of course, prevention is the best medicine, and one of the most effective ways to protect your child from infection is to teach him or her basic hygiene. Children should be taught to wash their hands often​—especially before eating, after using the toilet, after spending time in a crowded public place, or after petting animals. If, in spite of your best efforts, your child does get a mild fever, do not overreact. As we have learned, there is much you can do to help your child recuperate.


^ par. 6 Temperature may vary according to where the measurement is taken and the type of thermometer used.

^ par. 10 See the April 8, 1995, issue of Awake! page 11, for making a rehydration formula that can be used in cases of fever accompanied by diarrhea or vomiting.

^ par. 11 Reye’s syndrome is an acute neurological illness that can develop in children following a viral infection.

[Box on page 27]

Call the Doctor if a Feverish Child . . .

▪ Is three months of age or younger and has a rectal temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit [38°C] or higher

▪ Is between three and six months of age and has a temperature of 101 degrees Fahrenheit [38.3°C] or higher

▪ Is older than six months and has a temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit [40°C] or higher

▪ Refuses liquids and shows signs of dehydration

▪ Has a seizure or is extremely listless

▪ Is still feverish after 72 hours

▪ Cries inconsolably or shows signs of confusion or delirium

▪ Has a rash, difficulty breathing, diarrhea, or repeated vomiting

▪ Has a stiff neck or sudden severe headache

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Source: The American Academy of Pediatrics