All kids get a fever from time to time, and most fevers (up to 105 °F [40.55 °C]) usually don't indicate anything serious. A fever itself causes no harm and can actually be a good thing – it's often the body's way of fighting infections. 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. Do you wake your child? Will medication help? Here's more about fevers, including how to know if things are a bit more serious.
Fever happens when a part of the brain called the hypothalamus acts like a thermostat and raises the body's internal temperature. The hypothalamus knows which temperature your body should be 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 – temperatures are usually a little lower in the morning and slightly higher in the evening. They can also 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 symptom of another problem. Fevers can be caused by a few things, including:
Most fevers are caused by an infection or other illness. A fever helps the body fight infections by stimulating natural defense mechanisms.
Infants, especially newborns, may get fevers if they're over-bundled or in a hot environment, because they don't regulate their body temperature as well as older children. However, 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.
Babies and kids sometimes get a low-grade fever after getting vaccinated.
In healthy kids, not all fevers need to be treated. High fevers, though, can make a child uncomfortable and lead to other problems, such as dehydration. Doctors decide on whether to treat a fever by considering both the temperature and a child's overall condition.
For babies under 3 months, any fever should be evaluated by a doctor. For older kids, watching how your child behaves will give you a pretty good idea whether your child should be seen by a doctor.
The illness is probably not serious if your child:
- Is still interested in playing
- Is eating and drinking well
- Is alert and smiling at you
- Has a normal skin color
- Looks well when his or her temperature comes down
If you're in doubt about what to do or what a fever might mean, call your doctor for advice. Get pointers from a pediatrician on identifying which children's pain reliever or fever reducer is right for your child.
Which pain reliever do you reach for when your child has a fever, an earache, or a headache? There's a good chance it's the same one your parents gave you. Most contain either ibuprofen (its familiar brand name is Motrin) or acetaminophen (yes, that's Tylenol®). While there's no shame in brand loyalty, you should always consider what the best strategy is for your child’s health. Here are six tips for giving a fever-reducer to your child:
1. Always treat your child, not the fever.
If your child has a mild fever, but appears happy and playful, it may not be necessary to give your child a fever reducer. Germs don't like higher body temperatures, so if your child is fighting an infection and does not seem uncomfortable, skip the meds. The immune system has warmed up and is doing its work.
2. Don't give ibuprofen to infants under six months old or to children who are dehydrated or vomiting.
It can cause gastritis and stomach pains.
3. Don't give your child acetaminophen unless you're certain of the dose, and never give it for more than five days in a row.
With care, acetaminophen can usually be given to young children, even infants, but always check with your pediatrician first. Acetaminophen is used to treat mild to moderate pain and fever. It does have the benefit of coming in a suppository form, which can be helpful if your child is vomiting or refusing to take medications by mouth.
4. As always, be very careful with dosing.
If you give your child medicine on your own, always follow the dosing instructions on the label. In certain situations, your pediatrician might recommend a different dose of ibuprofen or acetaminophen than what the label recommends, depending on your child's weight. In that case, follow your doctor's instructions to the letter.
5. Don't mix acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
It can be risky to alternate them – especially if your child is dehydrated or has other medical problems. The drugs can react with each other to cause serious side effects, including kidney damage. If you've already given your child ibuprofen for fever and want to add acetaminophen for pain, check with your pediatrician first. If your doctor says it’s fine to alternate between the two, keep a written schedule so that you administer the right medicine at the right time.
6. Never give your child any kind of aspirin.
Not even baby aspirin, which is not for babies. Aspirin can cause Reye's syndrome. Many of you might remember taking aspirin in your own childhood, but that was before anyone knew better. Aspirin of any kind should not be given to babies or children under 16.
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.