Your Child’s Fever, Good or Bad?

Written by Kristen Stuppy MD

Fever is scary to parents.

Parents hear about fever seizures and are afraid the temperature will get so high that it will cause permanent brain damage. In reality the way a child is acting is more important than the temperature. If they are dehydrated, having difficulty breathing, or are in extreme pain, you don’t need a thermometer to know they are sick.

Fever is uncomfortable.

Fever can make the body ache. It is often associated with other pains, such as headache or earache. Kids look miserable when they have a fever. They might appear more tired than normal. They breathe faster. Their heart pounds. They whine. Their face is flushed. They are sweaty. They might have chills.

Fever is often feared as something bad.

Parents often fear the worst with a fever: Is it pneumonia? Leukemia? Ear infection?

Fever is good in most cases.

In most instances, fever in children is good. It is a sign of a working immune system.

Fever is often associated with decreased appetite.

This decreased food intake worries parents, but if the child is drinking enough to stay hydrated, they can survive a few days without food. Kids typically increase their intake when feeling well again. Don’t force them to eat when sick, but do encourage fluids to maintain hydration.

Fever is serious in infants under 3 months, immune compromised people, and in under immunized kids.

These kids do not have very effective immune systems and are more at risk from diseases their bodies can’t fight. Any abnormal temperature (both too high and too low) should be completely evaluated in these at risk children.

Fever is inconvenient.

I hate to say it, but for many parents it is just not convenient for their kids to be sick. A big meeting at work. A child’s class party. A recital. A big game or tournament. Whatever it is, our lives are busy and we don’t want to stop for illness. Unfortunately, there is no treatment for fever that makes it become non-infectious immediately, so it is best to stay home. Don’t expose others by giving your child ibuprofen and hoping the school nurse won’t call.

Fever is a normal response to illness in most cases.

Most fevers in kids are due to viruses and run their course in 3-5 days. Parents usually want to know what temperature is too high, but that number is really unknown (probably above 106F).

The height of a fever does not tell us how serious the infection is. The higher the temperature, the more miserable a person feels. That is why it is recommended to use a fever reducer after 102F. The temperature does not need to come back to normal, it just needs to come down enough for comfort.

Fever is most common at night.

Unfortunately most illnesses are more severe at night. This has to do with the complex system of hormones in our body. It means that kids who seem “okay” during the day have more discomfort over night. This decreases everyone’s sleep and is frustrating to parents, but is common.

Fever is a time that illnesses are considered most contagious.

During a fever viral shedding is highest. It is important to keep anyone with fever away from others as much as practical (in a home, confining kids to a bedroom can help). Wash hands and surfaces that person touches often during any illness.

Continue these precautions until the child is fever free for 24 hours without fever reducers. (Remember that temperatures fluctuate, so a few hours without fever doesn’t prove that the infection is resolved.)

Fever is an elevation of normal temperature.

Normal temperature varies throughout the day, and depends on the location the temperature was taken and the type of thermometer used.

Digital thermometers have replaced glass mercury thermometers due to safety concerns with mercury. Ear thermometers are not accurate in young infants or those with wax in the ear canal. Plastic strip thermometers and pacifier thermometers give a general idea of a temperature, but are not accurate.

To identify a true fever, it is important to note the degree temperature as well as location taken. (A kiss on the forehead can let most parents know if the child is warm or hot, but doesn’t identify a true fever and therefore the need to isolate to prevent spreading illness.)

I never recommend adding or subtracting degrees to decide if it is a fever. In reality, you can look at a child to know if they are sick. The degree of temperature helps guide if they can go to school or daycare, not how you should treat the child. Fevers in children are temperatures above

  • 100.4 F (38 C) rectally
  • 99.5 F (37.5 C) in the mouth
  • 99 F (37.2 C) under the arm

Fever is rarely dangerous, though parents often fear the worst.

This is the time of year kids will be sick more than normal. With each illness there can be fever (though not always.)

What you can do?

  1. Be prepared at home with a fever reducer and know your child’s proper dosage (especially with the recent dosing changes to acetaminophen!)
  2. Use fever reducers to make kids comfortable, not to bring the temperature to normal.
  3. Have an electrolyte solution at home in case of vomiting.
  4. Teach kids to wash their hands and cover coughs and sneezes with their elbows.
  5. Stay home when sick to keep from spreading germs. It is generally okay to return to work/school when fever – free 24 hours without the use of fever reducers.
  6. Help kids rest when sick.
  7. If the fever lasts more than 3-5 days, your child looks dehydrated, is having trouble breathing, is in extreme pain, or you are concerned, your child should be seen. A physical exam (and sometimes labs or xray) is needed to identify the source of illness in these cases. A phone call cannot diagnose a source of fever.
  8. Any infant under 3 months or immune compromised child should be seen to rule out serious disease if the temperature is more than 100.5.
Dr. Stuppy is a practicing pediatrician in Kansas. I feels privileged to be able to help families keep their children healthy and she loves watching entire families grow!  Dr Stuppy is active on Facebook and puts a more personal touch to pediatric topics on her blog.  
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3 thoughts on “Your Child’s Fever, Good or Bad?

  1. In the absence of heart failure, congestive heart failure and dysautonomia, fever hasn’t been shown to be harmful. On the contrary there is considerable evidence that it is beneficial. Giving ‘fever reducers’ to children with temperatures above a given level (in the case 102F) appears to be counterproductive. And, there is some evidence that acetaminophen might cause bronchospasm and even predispose to asthma. I, therefore, suggest that acetaminophen or ibuprofen be used it the child is particularly uncomfortable or in pain, but not for the purpose of reducing fever, unless the child has heart, lung or temperature regulation disorders.

    Richard H. Feuille, Jr., MD

  2. Pingback: Guided Tips on how to care for a child/toddler who has a fever (this does not apply to infants): | CreateWhatYouWant

  3. Reblogged this on Bustamante.Pediatrics.Blog and commented:
    With the changing of seasons often comes sudden changes in health. Information is your friend, and it’s the key to addressing any situation calmly and effectively.

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