When your little one is burning up with a high temperature it’s natural to worry, but fevers can actually be a good sign, says Dr Mfed Mosely, consultant neonatologist and paediatrician at Medeor 24x7 International Hospital, Al Ain. “Fever revs up the body’s immune system and activates it to fight off any viral or bacterial ‘invaders’,” he says. “The ability to mount a fever has been shown to increase survival rates in animal species. So, when your child has a fever, it means his or her body is doing its job.”
We spoke to Dr Mosely about the key things to know about fevers in children, when you can treat them at home, and when it’s time to seek professional help.
What is classed as a fever?
Most paediatric experts agree a fever is a temperature equal to or greater than 38 degrees Celsius (100.4F).
How do I tell if my child has a fever?
You may suspect that your child has a fever if he or she:
- feels hotter than usual when you touch them on the head, tummy or back
- feels damp or sweaty
- is flushed or red in the face
In order to confirm whether your child has a fever, you should check their temperature with a thermometer.
Does it matter how I take my child’s temperature?
What method you use to take your child’s temperature can make a difference to the accuracy of the reading. “The closer we get to the core of the body, the more accurate it is,” says Dr Mosley. “That’s why, when we measure the temperature of a baby, we often want to take the temperature in the baby’s bottom. For older kids, a temperature taken in the mouth or the bottom is much more accurate than a temperature taken under the armpit.”
What if my very young baby has a fever?
“A child’s age matters a lot when it comes to fever,” says Dr Mosely. “For infants under a month of age, even a really low-grade fever can signal a serious infection from a bacterium. Generally speaking all infants less than 6 months of age are classified in the dangerous-zone category when it comes to fever, and should be evaluated by a professional to rule out any abnormal condition. It’s also important to note that when very young babies are sick they might present at times with a low temperature rather than a high temperature. Up to 2 months of age infants pose the highest risk of spreading of the infection and in those infants even a slight, persistent rise of temperature above 38 is considered to be significant.
“As kids get older, we paediatricians are less concerned about low-grade, fleeting fevers in otherwise healthy and vaccinated kids, but recommend an evaluation if your child has had a temperature for more than 2-3 days (or any time you are concerned).”
Can a very high fever give my child brain damage?
“Studies show that parents are often the most concerned when a child has a fever that they will have brain damage, but brain damage has NOT been associated with high fever, even fevers as high as 41.5 degrees. Sometimes a really high fever can help us figure out if a child’s illness is from a virus or bacteria, but that’s not true until the fever gets as high as 41. There are plenty of viruses that give kids high fevers for a few days as well.”
My child still has a fever even after I gave him medication – should I worry?
“It doesn’t always matter if the Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen you’ve been giving to “treat” your child’s fever doesn’t make it go away and stay away. These medications are for your child’s comfort but don’t help to fight off the virus or bacteria your child has. If they don’t completely eliminate the fever, it doesn’t mean they aren’t working, just that they wore off like they are supposed to."
What causes a high temperature?
- Bacterial infections such as scarlet fever , or rarely , rheumatic fever (both related to "Strep Throat")
- Viral infections, like influenza (the “FLU’ )
- Illnesses related to heat exposure
- Rarely, inflammatory diseases, like Juvenile rheumatic arthritis.
How should I treat a fever?
“It all depends on the parents’ or the caregiver’s experience, knowledge and ability to evaluate the child with fever, however a child above 6 months of age can usually be treated at home for a medical condition that is presenting with a cold, runny nose and congestion for 2-3 days taking into consideration a fever not above 38.5.”
Treating a feverish child at home could include:
- Keeping them well hydrated with plenty of fluids
- Offering extra breastfeeds if you are nursing
- Keeping them off from school or nursery
- Avoid dressing them in too many clothes or blankets
- According to the UK’s National Health Service, there is no point in undressing a feverish child or sponging them down with water, as neither has been shown to help a child with fever
- Administering appropriate over-the-counter medications
However, Dr Mosely points out that when the fever persists even with the use of over-the-counter fever medicines then it is highly recommended to get the child checked by professionals.
Can I ‘double up’ on fever medication?
According to Dr Mosley it is never recommended to double up on medication to treat fever and you should follow the following recommendations:
- Never give your child more than one medicine containing acetaminophen at a time.
- Choose the right medicine based on your child’s weight and age.
- Never give more of an acetaminophen-containing medicine than directed. If the medicine doesn’t help your child feel better, talk to your doctor.
- If the medicine is a liquid, use the measuring tool that comes with the medicine—not a kitchen spoon.
When should I seek professional medical help?
Dr Mosley says you should visit your doctor if your child has a fever and:
- The child is younger than 6 months of age (regardless of prematurity).
- One is unable to control the fever.
- One suspects a child may become dehydrated from vomiting or diarrhea, or not drinking (for example, the child has sunken eyes, dry diapers, tented skin, cannot be roused, etc.).
- The child has been to a doctor but is now getting worse or new symptoms or signs have developed.
Although you may have done your best to care for your child, it is wise to take your child to the doctor or the emergency department. Take a child to an emergency clinic when any of the following happen:
- One has serious concerns and is unable to contact the child's doctor.
- One suspects the child is dehydrated.
- A seizure occurs.
- The child has a purple or red rash.
- A change in consciousness occurs.
- The child's breathing is shallow, rapid, or difficult.
- The child is younger than 2 months of age.
- The child has a headache that will not go away.
- The child continues to vomit.
- The child has complex medical problems or takes prescription medications on a chronic basis (for example, medications prescribed for more than two weeks' duration).