Fever Fighters: How Parents Should Handle Sick Children and Babies
Watching a child try to fight off a fever can be an anxious experience for caregivers, but Dinah Conti, MD, UnityPoint Health says not to panic. As one of the most common symptoms of illness, understanding fevers in children can give caregivers confidence in knowing how to help reduce their child’s fever and when to see a doctor.
Dr. Conti says there's no degree of fever that'll hurt your baby or child. Fever is actually a sign that the body is fighting off an infection.
“Let’s think about the food we eat,” Dr. Conti says. “When we want to kill the germs in our food, we cook it. The same thing happens in the human body. When the body wants to kill germs that are harmful, it heats them up. The fever is just a signal, not the cause of harm.”
Fever in Children: When to Worry
A normal temperature for a child ranges between 97 degrees Fahrenheit (F) to 100.4 degree F. Anything that’s 100.4 degrees F or higher is considered a fever in a child.
- If your child is less than three months of age, call their healthcare provider right away if their temperature is taken rectally and reads 100.5 F or more.
- If your child is three months or older, call their healthcare provider anytime you’re concerned your child is ill and needs medical attention. It doesn’t matter how high the fever is, whether 100.5 or 103.
How to take your child’s temperature
Experts recommend using a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. There are three types recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
- Digital multiuse thermometers are used rectally from birth to three years of age. While this may seem uncomfortable, babies typically tolerate it well. You can coat the thermometer with petroleum jelly if desired. If your baby has a rectal temperature of 100.4F or higher, call your provider right away. If your provider is unavailable, take your baby to the emergency department. From four to five years and older, it can be used orally. It can also be used under the arm, but this is the least reliable technique. Experts say to make sure you use different thermometers on different parts of the body. If you have multiple, it’s a good idea to label them.
- Temporal artery thermometers read the heat waves coming from the temporal artery, on the side of your head. The AAP suggests using it for children three months and older.
- Tympanic thermometers are used in the ear. The AAP suggests using it on children six months or older.
When is a fever dangerous for a child?
There is no “danger zone” when it comes to fever. While some parents may worry about febrile seizures, typically caused by a sudden spike in body temperature, they’re rare and only affect between two and five percent of American children younger than five years old. Although, they’re most common in children younger than two years old.
While not all children will experience each of these, common symptoms of a febrile seizure include:
- A fever greater than 101 F
- Loss of consciousness
- Uncontrollable shaking of all extremities
- Stiffness in the body
- Rolling of the eyes
Always seek medical attention following the first occurrence of a febrile seizure.
How to bring down your child’s fever
Whether your child’s temperature is 100- or 105-degrees F, if they’re uncomfortable, try to help. You can do this in several ways but giving them cool liquids to drink is a great way to start.
“When we’re hot, we need to sweat to cool off. If your child isn't drinking enough fluids, then she/he can’t sweat, and you’ll have trouble getting the temperature down to the normal range,” Dr. Conti says.
Her second suggestion is to try medication. Children two months of age and older can have Tylenol, and those six months and older can have ibuprofen. However, if you go this route, make sure you follow the directions on the label for your child’s weight.
A step-by-step guide if your child is sick after hours:
- Don’t panic.
- If your baby is younger than three months old and has a fever, call the after-hours line to speak with a nurse or physician about what to do next.
- If your child is three months or older, try to make them comfortable. If they’re sleeping, let them sleep. If they’re thirsty, give them something to drink. You can also try Tylenol or ibuprofen, according to the medication labels. In a newborn baby less than six months old, we recommend that you immediately contact a provider if a baby is fussy or feverish enough to consider giving Tylenol or Ibuprofen. In most cases, baby will need a medical evaluation to determine the best course of care. Do not give acetaminophen to a newborn unless instructed by your provider. Ibuprofen should not be used until 6 months of age or older.
- If you can keep your child comfortable overnight, call your child’s healthcare provider in the morning for advice or an appointment.
- If your child is inconsolable despite all the steps above, or you become concerned, call your healthcare provider or save your spot online and visit your nearest walk-in care clinic.
“Your child will feel better once the illness is gone. Until then, you may spend most of the day and night comforting your child. You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re loving and comforting your child while his/her body fights this illness,” Dr. Conti says.
If you have other fever-related questions or other health concerns related to your child, contact your UnityPoint Health pediatrician or primary care provider.