At Westchester Health Pediatrics, one health issue that can cause concerned parents to call us in a panic is when their child has a fever. Quite understandably, they want to know if they should simply make their child comfortable, give lots of fluids and wait it out, or whether it’s a sign of something serious and they should bring their child in to see us right away.
What we tell them is that in many cases, for children older than six months, a low-grade fever can actually be a good thing. A fever is the body’s normal immune response to bacteria and viruses, and the more the body temperature rises, the harder it is for these germs to survive. (We published a blog about this, which you can read here.)
Also, a fever stimulates the immune system into producing more white blood cells, antibodies and a protein called interferon, all of which work to protect your child against harmful microorganisms.
But how high is too high?
The facts about fevers
Too often, parents reach straight for fever-reducing medications like Tylenol or Motrin, says Johnson Memorial Health. But unless your pediatrician has specifically recommended medication, we advise that you hold off and give your child’s fever a chance to do its job.
Having said that, here are some guidelines for when a fever is too high:
- For an infant under 3 months old: A rectal temperature of 100.4F or above is cause for serious concern. Go to an emergency room or pediatrician’s office immediately.
- For babies 3 months to 1 year old: With a temperature of 100.4F or above, it’s a good idea to call your pediatrician for advice, depending on your baby’s medical history.
- For children: Temperatures between 100.4F and 104F may seem serious but are probably a normal part of a common illness like a cold or virus.
- BE AWARE: Brain damage occurs at 108F and above.
The top 4 reasons you should let a fever run its course
Fever-reducing medicine masks symptoms
When children are feverish, they usually lie around, eat very little and take frequent naps. When you treat a fever with medication, they feel better and become more active, when they should really rest more and stay still while their bodies fight the virus.
All medication has side effects
Children’s pain and fever medications—whether in liquid or chewable form—are full of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives, ingredients that we counsel the parents of our patients to avoid. While acetaminophen and ibuprofen are usually safe if taken correctly, long-term use of acetaminophen can cause liver toxicity. Ibuprofen can cause stomach upset or increase the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding, if taken in excess, particularly on an empty stomach.
Fever helps the body heal
Evidence shows that fever is beneficial to the healing process, triggering the immune response and preventing viruses and bacteria from replicating. One study showed that flu sufferers who suppressed their fevers with medications were sick for more than three days longer than those who took no medication.
Fever reducers contribute to the spread of flu
Often well-meaning parents end up doing more harm than good by giving their feverish children medication to make them feel better and bring down their fever, and then taking their still highly contagious kids out in public where they can infect others. Researchers estimate that in an average flu season, fever-reducing medications could lead to tens of thousands of extra flu cases and at least a thousand flu deaths.
When a fever should not be ignored
There are times when a fever, possibly in combination with other symptoms, warrants a trip to your pediatrician. These include:
- A rectal temperature of 100.4 degrees or more in an infant less than 6 weeks old. Young babies are more at risk for certain serious bacterial infections and fever is an indication of these.
- A fever that lasts more than 5 days.
- High fever accompanied by lethargy, meaning that your child is limp and unresponsive, won’t make eye contact, has no energy and generally just looks and acts really sick.
- High fever accompanied by any of the symptoms of meningitis: an unusual skin rash, severe headache, aversion to light, confusion, stiff or painful neck.
- Constant, inconsolable crying.
Don’t “starve a fever”
The old adage that says “feed a cold, starve a fever” is actually wrong. You should feed both, if your child feels like eating. The main thing is to try to make your child comfortable while the fever runs its course.
- Encourage your child to eat small meals, but a low appetite is normal.
- Make sure your child drinks lots of fluids and stays hydrated for the duration of the fever.
- Put a blanket on your child if he/she feels chilled.
- Dress your child in loose clothing that can be removed when he/she feels hot.
Helpful articles we recommend
As well as tips and advice for when to treat a fever, count on us for all kinds of information to help you raise your kids.
You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers. Whether you’re raising teenagers, adolescents, toddlers or newborns, we’ve got years of experience helping parents take care of their children and we’re ready to help you with yours. Please come in and see us.
Worried that your child’s fever might be a symptom of something serious? Come see us.
If your child’s fever is not getting better after a day or two and he/she seems very uncomfortable, this might mean that something more serious than a cold or the flu is going on. To know for sure, please bring your child in so that one of our Westchester Health Pediatrics pediatricians can examine him/her. We’ll do everything we can to make your child feel better soon. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.