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Health Information For Parents
All kids get a fever from time to time. A fever itself usually causes no harm and can actually be a good thing — it’s often a sign that the body is fighting an infection.
But when your child wakes in the middle of the night flushed, hot, and sweaty, it’s easy to be unsure of what to do next. Should you get out the thermometer? Call the doctor?
Here’s more about fevers, including when to contact your doctor.
Fever happens when the body’s internal “thermostat” raises the body temperature above its normal level. This thermostat is found in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus knows what temperature your body should be (usually around 98.6°F/37°C) and will send messages to your body to keep it that way.
Most people’s body temperatures change a little bit during the course of the day: It’s usually a little lower in the morning and a little higher in the evening and can vary as kids run around, play, and exercise.
Sometimes, though, the hypothalamus will “reset” the body to a higher temperature in response to an infection, illness, or some other cause. Why? Researchers believe that turning up the heat is a way for the body to fight the germs that cause infections, making it a less comfortable place for them.
It’s important to remember that fever by itself is not an illness — it’s usually a sign or symptom of another problem.
Fevers can be caused by a few things, including:
Infection: Most fevers are caused by infection or other illness. A fever helps the body fight infections by stimulating natural defense mechanisms.
Overdressing: Infants, especially newborns, may get fevers if they’re overbundled or in a hot environment because they don’t regulate their body temperature as well as older kids. But because fevers in newborns can indicate a serious infection, even infants who are overdressed must be checked by a doctor if they have a fever.
Immunizations: Babies and kids sometimes get a low-grade fever after getting vaccinated.
Although teething may cause a slight rise in body temperature, it’s probably not the cause if a child’s temperature is higher than 100°F (37.8°C).
In healthy kids, not all fevers need to be treated. High fever, though, can make a child uncomfortable and make problems (such as dehydration) worse.
Doctors decide on whether to treat a fever by considering both the temperature and a child’s overall condition.
Kids whose temperatures are lower than 102°F (38.9°C) often don’t need medicine unless they’re uncomfortable. There’s one important exception: If an infant 3 months or younger has a rectal temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, call your doctor or go to the emergency department immediately. Even a slight fever can be a sign of a potentially serious infection in very young babies.
If your child is between 3 months and 3 years old and has a fever of 102.2°F (39°C) or higher, call to see if your doctor needs to see your child. For older kids, take behavior and activity level into account. Watching how your child behaves will give you a pretty good idea of whether a minor illness is the cause or if your child should be seen by a doctor.
The illness is probably not serious if your child:
And don’t worry too much about a child with a fever who doesn’t want to eat. This is very common with infections that cause fever. For kids who still drink and urinate (pee) normally, not eating as much as usual is OK.
A gentle kiss on the forehead or a hand placed lightly on the skin is often enough to give you a hint that your child has a fever. However, this method of taking a temperature (called tactile temperature) won’t give an accurate measurement.
Use a reliable digital thermometer to confirm a fever. It’s a fever when a child’s temperature is at or above one of these levels:
But how high a fever is doesn’t tell you much about how sick your child is. A simple cold or other viral infection can sometimes cause a rather high fever (in the 102°–104°F/38.9°–40°C range), but this doesn’t usually mean there’s a serious problem. In fact, a serious infection, especially in infants, might cause no fever or even a low body temperature (below 97°F or 36.1°C).
Because fevers can rise and fall, a child might have chills as the body’s temperature begins to rise. The child may sweat to release extra heat as the temperature starts to drop.
Sometimes kids with a fever breathe faster than usual and may have a faster heart rate. Call the doctor if your child has trouble breathing, is breathing faster than normal, or is still breathing fast after the fever comes down.
Again, not all fevers need to be treated. In most cases, a fever should be treated only if it’s causing a child discomfort.
Here are ways to ease symptoms that often accompany a fever:
If your child is fussy or uncomfortable, you can give acetaminophen or ibuprofen based on the package recommendations for age or weight. (Unless instructed by a doctor, never give aspirin to a child due to its association with Reye syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disease.) If you don’t know the recommended dose or your child is younger than 2 years old, call the doctor to find out how much to give.
Infants younger than 2 months old should not be given any medicine for fever without being checked by a doctor. If your child has any medical problems, check with the doctor to see which medicine is best to use. Remember that fever medicine can temporarily bring a temperature down, but usually won’t return it to normal — and it won’t treat the underlying reason for the fever.
Dress your child in lightweight clothing and cover with a light sheet or blanket. Overdressing and overbundling can prevent body heat from escaping and can cause the temperature to rise.
Make sure your child’s bedroom is a comfortable temperature — not too hot or too cold.
While some parents use lukewarm sponge baths to lower fever, this method only helps temporarily, if at all. In fact, sponge baths can make kids uncomfortable. Never use rubbing alcohol (it can cause poisoning when absorbed through the skin) or ice packs/cold baths (they can cause chills that can raise body temperature).
Offer plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration because fevers make kids lose fluids more rapidly than usual. Water, soup, ice pops, and flavored gelatin are all good choices. Avoid drinks with caffeine, including colas and tea, because they can make dehydration worse by increasing urination (peeing).
If your child also is vomiting and/or has diarrhea, ask the doctor if you should give an electrolyte (rehydration) solution made especially for kids. You can find these at drugstores and supermarkets. Don’t offer sports drinks — they’re not made for younger children and the added sugars can make diarrhea worse. Also, limit your child’s intake of fruits and apple juice.
In general, let kids eat what they want (in reasonable amounts), but don’t force it if they don’t feel like it.
Make sure your child gets plenty of rest. Staying in bed all day isn’t necessary, but a sick child should take it easy.
It’s best to keep a child with a fever home from school or childcare. Most doctors feel that it’s safe to return when the temperature has been normal for 24 hours.
The exact temperature that should trigger a call to the doctor depends on a child’s age, the illness, and whether there are other symptoms with the fever.
Call your doctor if you have an:
Also call if an older child has a fever of lower than 102.2°F (39°C) but also:
Get emergency care if your child shows any of these signs:
Also, ask if your doctor has specific guidelines on when to call about a fever.
All kids get fevers, and in most cases they’re completely back to normal within a few days. For older babies and kids, the way they act can be more important than the reading on your thermometer. Everyone gets a little cranky when they have a fever. This is normal and should be expected.
But if you’re ever in doubt about what to do or what a fever might mean, or if your child is acting ill in a way that concerns you even if there’s no fever, always call your doctor for advice.
All kids get a fever from time to time. Here’s how to take your child’s temperature, safely and accurately.
Fevers are usually not cause for alarm – they’re the body’s way of fighting infection. Here’s what to do if your child has a fever.
Febrile seizures are full-body convulsions caused by high fevers that affect young kids. Although they can be frightening, theyÂ usually stop on their own and don’t cause any other health problems.
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Flu symptoms tend to come on quickly and are worse than the sneezing and stuffiness of a cold. The flu is very contagious. Find out what to do in this article for parents.
Reye syndrome is an extremely rare but serious illness. Cases have dropped greatly since the finding of a link between the illness and aspirin use in kids and teens.
In an emergency, it’s hard to think clearly about your kids’ health information. Here’s what important medical information you should have handy, just in case.
What are fevers? Why do kids get them? Get the facts on temperatures and fevers in this article for kids.
Stay home or go to school? That’s what you are probably wondering if you have the flu. Find out more.
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Dehydration is when the amount of water in the body has dropped too low. Read about what causes dehydration, what it does to your body, and how to prevent it.
Our bodies need water to work properly. Find out more in this article for kids.
Kids can become dehydrated when their bodies lose very large amounts of fluids. It’s important to replenish fluid losses as quickly as possible.
Antibiotics are powerful medicines that can help kids feel better — but only when they have certain illnesses. Find out if an antibiotic is right for your child.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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