Even though it may seem counterintuitive, for children older than six months old, a fever can be a good thing. An elevated temperature indicates that your child’s body is fighting off an exposure to a new virus or bacteria such as a cold, the flu or an ear infection, or it could be a sign that your baby is having an inflammatory response to an occurrence, such as teething. At Westchester Health, we advise our parents that letting a fever run its course can reduce the length and severity of many illnesses, and therefore they shouldn’t automatically give their child fever reducing medicine.
3 ways a low fever benefits a sick child
- A fever stimulates the immune system into producing more white blood cells, antibodies and the protein interferon, all of which work to protect your baby against harmful microorganisms.
- By raising your baby’s temperature a few degrees, a fever makes it harder for bacteria and viruses to survive and flourish. The higher the core body temperature, the more inhospitable the environment for harmful microorganisms to survive.
- A fever helps divert iron to the liver which reduces its ability to fuel the growth of invading bacteria.
8 important reasons to let your baby’s fever run its course
A study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that children who ran a fever during their first year were less likely to develop allergies later in childhood than children who did not have fever. For this and the following reasons, it really is beneficial to your baby, now and in the long run, to let a fever play itself out.
1. Fever reducers mask symptoms. When babies have a fever, they usually lie still, eat very little and take frequent naps. (Our bodies know that digestion requires energy and therefore appetite is suppressed in an effort to conserve resources.) When you treat a fever with medicine, the child feels better and becomes more active when actually he/she should rest more and move about less while fighting the virus.
2. No medication is without side effects. At Westchester Health, we worry about the long-term consequences of frequent doses of children’s pain and fever medication. Whether liquid or chewable, they tend to be full of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives, ingredients that we counsel our parents to avoid. It should also be noted that acetaminophen (the active ingredient in common fever and pain relievers) can be toxic to the liver in very high amounts. Ibuprofen is another common medication used to reduce fever and inflammation which also is a cause of gastritis which may lead to stomachaches.
3. 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 reproducing. One study showed that people with the flu who suppressed their fevers with medication were sick for more than 3 days longer than those who took no medication.
4. Fever reducers contribute to the spread of the flu. Many well-meaning parents administer medication and then take their less symptomatic but still highly contagious kids out to public places where they can infect others.
5. Fevers need to be treated only if they are causing discomfort. Usually a fever has to be above 102 or 103 degrees before making a child uncomfortable. It is not unusual for a pediatrician to see a child who is smiling and active, yet has a fever; that child may not need any fever reducers at all.
6. Treating a fever usually doesn’t bring the body temperature back to normal. It just lowers it 2 or 3 degrees.
7. Only 4% of children have febrile seizures, indicated by a momentary loss of consciousness, eyes rolling back, shaking, twitching or stiffening. When these types of seizures do occur, they cause no permanent harm.
8. How your baby looks is more important than the exact reading on the thermometer. If your child is not in distress, is responsive and can interact with you, he/she is naturally fighting off the illness and should not automatically be given medicine.
If you do give your baby a fever reducer, follow the dose instructions to the letter
According to Parents.com, many parents administer anti-fever drugs too frequently and in too high doses. It’s very important to give the dose that matches your child’s current weight, and use the dropper that comes with the package. Different formulations of fever medications come in different strengths, meaning that the dropper for one bottle of medicine might not be right for another bottle. (We’ve written a blog about this, which you can read here.)
NOTE: Never give aspirin to children or adolescents with fevers. The combination of aspirin and a viral infection may lead to Reye’s syndrome, a rare yet potentially fatal liver disorder. After age 18, this risk virtually disappears.
When a fever should not be ignored and your child needs to see a doctor
There are times when a fever, sometimes in combination with other symptoms, warrants a trip to your pediatrician, advises Parents.com. These include:
- A rectal temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher 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. Although the word lethargy is often used in daily speech to express fatigue, the medical definition that doctors are seeking is a bit different. A lethargic child is limp and unresponsive, won’t make eye contact, or generally just looks and acts really sick. A lethargic child needs to be assessed by a medical professional.
- 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.
How to take your baby’s temperature
At Westchester Health, we recommend taking your baby’s temperature rectally ONLY. Here’s how:
- The normal range for a temperature taken rectally is 9°F-100.4°F
- Using a digital thermometer, lay your baby on his/her back and bring the knees up over the abdomen
- Make sure the thermometer is clean, then dip it in water-soluble jelly
- Insert the thermometer in your baby’s rectum, about 1 inch
- Wait for the thermometer to take the reading (usually indicated by a beep)
- Clean the thermometer after each use with soap and water or rubbing alcohol
A little sidebar on teething and fever
Teething often gets a bad rap as a cause of fever. Keep in mind that teething may lead to some mild inflammation. The most common reason for a mild fever associated with teething is actually associated with the common behavior of teething children: putting their fingers in their mouths. This essentially means that the child is exposing themselves to the germs that they put into their mouths from the surfaces they previously touched.
Read our other pediatric blogs
We’ve written a number of informative blogs about a wide variety of issues and conditions affecting children, which you can read here.
Worried about your baby’s fever? Come see us
If your baby’s fever is not getting better after a day or two and he/she seems very uncomfortable, this might mean that something is going on other than teething or a cold. In that case, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment to see one of our Westchester Health pediatricians. We’ll examine your child, diagnose what the problem might be, and prescribe the appropriate treatment. Our #1 goal is to do whatever we can to help your child feel better, and to give you peace of mind, as soon as possible. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.
By Maryann Buetti-Sgouros MD, FAAP, a Pediatrician with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Northern Westchester Hospital.