Seeing your child feel anything less than their normal, happy self is a tough experience for any parent. If illness is accompanied by a fever, that experience can turn from uncomfortable to downright stressful. In order to dispel the fear that often surrounds fevers, it’s helpful to understand what they are, what causes them, what to do about them, and when it’s time to call the pediatrician.
When is a fever considered a “true fever”?
“Fever” is the word commonly used to describe any increase in the body’s normal temperature. It’s important to understand that a fever in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s the body’s natural defense to kill off an infection. Although there are many factors that could contribute to an increase in body temperature (including illness, time of day, activity, weather, etc.), in general, most medical providers consider a body temperature of 100.4°F or higher a “true fever.” It also matters where the temperature is taken on the child’s body; feeling a child’s forehead isn’t the most accurate method, so your child’s doctor will take temperature readings from the underarm, ear (if above 6 months), mouth, or rectum.
How can I treat my child’s fever at home?
When a child’s fever isn’t an emergency situation, it’s a good idea to try to lower the fever so they can get more comfortable, rest, and eat and drink. There are several ways you can help reduce your child’s fever at home:
- If age-appropriate, give them over-the-counter (OTC) fever reducers. Fever-reducing medicines like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin (ibuprofen) can help reduce a fever and make your child more comfortable. Be sure to read the medicine bottle label carefully to understand the correct dosage your child needs. If you have any questions, call your child’s primary care provider. Do not give a baby younger than 2 months any medicine without talking to your pediatrician first.
- Hydration is key. A fever can cause your child to become dehydrated because it can cause their body to use up fluids more quickly. It can often also make kids not want to eat or drink anything because they feel sick. Focus on encouraging your child to take small sips of water, soup, Pedialyte, Gatorade, or even popsicles.
- Dress for success. Don’t bundle up your child to “sweat out the fever” – instead, dress them in comfortable and breathable clothing, and give them blankets if needed.
- Avoid sponge or cold water baths. While it might sound tempting to give your child a cold water bath or sponge to cool them down, avoid doing this – cold water can cause your child to shiver and can actually increase their temperature.
When to call the pediatrician or go to the emergency room for a fever
Fevers are very common, and in most cases, can be treated at home. However, depending on age, just having a fever means a child needs to see a doctor.
- Newborn to 2 mo. with a fever of 100.4°F or higher – Go to the nearest emergency room
- 2-3 mo. with a fever of 100.4°F or higher – Call your pediatrician. If your pediatrician is unable to see you quickly, go to the nearest emergency room.
- 3 mo. and up with a fever of 100.4°F or higher – Call your pediatrician and treat the fever at home. Go to the nearest emergency room if:
- Your child’s fever does not decrease 1-2 degrees after giving medication, and if the fever persists for more than 24 hours in a child younger than 2 years or 3 days (72 hours) in a child 2 years or older
- Your child is unable to drink and/or is dehydrated (fewer wet diapers, crying without tears, dry mouth)
- Your child is lethargic
- Your child is having severe trouble breathing
- Your child’s temperature repeatedly rises above 104°F
About the Author
Dr. Whitney Kalin is a board-certified pediatric hospitalist at Valley Children’s Hospital. Her areas of clinical interest include pediatric sepsis and coccidiomycosis (Valley Fever). She is dedicated to assisting in the healing of children and to “give [her] best every day to the children of California’s Central Valley.”