What You Need to Know About Fevers

Man sick with fever.jpg

Have you ever been woken up in the middle of the night by a child who isn’t feeling well, with a forehead that is hot to the touch? Or was it you who woke up not feeling well? This is when you ask yourself whether you should pull out the thermometer or if it’s time to call the doctor. 

Fevers vary in severity for people of different ages and require different techniques including which thermometers to use, appropriate medicines, and when to call the doctor. 

Why Do Our Bodies Produce Fevers?

A fever is an increase in body temperature, often because the body is working hard to fight off an infection. Although it may not feel like it, a fever is a good thing for the body. It’s generally accepted that a true fever is a temperature of 100.4 degrees or above. Fevers may be caused by:

  • A virus
  • Bacterial infection
  • Extreme sunburn
  • Certain inflammatory conditions
  • Some medications

Symptoms of a fever may include:

  • Sweating
  • Shivering or chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Dehydration
  • General weakness

A high temperature (between 103 and 106) may cause confusion, hallucinations and irritability. A fever typically goes away in a few days.

Fevers in Newborns or Toddlers

The best way to take a newborn or toddler’s temperature is with a digital thermometer in the rectum. Make sure to label the rectal thermometer so it is not used orally. Infants less than two months of age should not be given any medicine for fever without a doctor’s evaluation. An elevated temperature may be a sign of illness.

When to Call a Doctor

  • A newborn has a body temperature less than 97. Newborns may not be able to regulate body temperature, becoming cold rather than hot. 
  • Three months or younger and rectal temperature is 100.4 or higher.
  • Between three and six months and has a temperature of 102 or higher and seems irritable or uncomfortable.
  • Between six to 24 months and has a temperature of 102 or higher and the temperature lasts longer than one day. If your child displays other symptoms, like a cold or cough, call your child’s doctor sooner than you normally would. 

Fevers in Children

If a child has a fever of 102 or more lasting longer than three days, call their doctor. Once a child reaches four or five years of age, you can take his or her temperature orally using a digital thermometer. If your child is uncomfortable, you can give him or her acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Be careful to not give your child more than one medicine that contains acetaminophen. Never give aspirin to a child. Make sure a child with a high fever gets plenty of rest and drinks lots of fluids to avoid dehydration.

For children, behavior is a good indicator of whether or not you need to call the pediatrician. If your child is still interested in playing, feeling alert and eating and drinking normally, the illness is probably not serious. A child with a fever who doesn’t want to eat but is still drinking and urinating normally is most likely OK.

When to Call a Doctor

  • Vomits or has a severe stomachache
  • Appears lethargic
  • Has a febrile seizure
  • Has been left in a hot car and has a fever. This requires immediate medical attention.

Fevers in Teens

For teenagers with a fever of 103 or more lasting longer than three days, seek medical attention. Similar to children, teenagers can have their temperature taken orally with a digital thermometer. Do not give aspirin to a teenager.

Encourage your teen to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Liquids like water, juice or broth are all good options to keep a teen hydrated. If your teenager is active, his or her body will create heat, making it very difficult to reduce the fever. Dressing in light clothing will make teens more comfortable if they’re experiencing discomfort. Make sure your teen is resting and avoiding physical activity.

When to Call a Doctor

  • Repeated vomiting
  • Severe stomachache 
  • Headache that causes discomfort

Fevers in Adults

A fever in adults is usually not considered dangerous until it reaches 103 or higher. Similar to children and teens, an adult may use a digital oral thermometer to measure body temperature. Adults should seek medical attention if their fever has lasted longer than three days at a temperature of 103 or more. An adult should not treat a fever that is 102 or less unless otherwise instructed by a doctor. A doctor may advise taking ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). Unlike children and teens, adults can take the recommended amount of aspirin in order to reduce their fever. Do not mix medications when trying to reduce your fever! If you have been taking medicine for three days and your fever is staying consistent at 103 or higher, call your doctor.

Fevers in Elderly Adults

A fever of 101 or higher in an older adult may be a sign of a serious viral or bacterial infection. Older adults may use a digital oral thermometer to take their temperature, but this may prove difficult for adults who have tongue tremors, dementia or other neurobehavioral disorders. If you are unable to use a digital thermometer, there are other types available. Prevent dangerous body temperatures in older adults by drinking lots of fluids, avoiding excessive exercise, staying indoors during peak heat times, taking cool showers and baths and keeping warm in cool environments.

When Do Fevers Become an Emergency?

If a child or adult is or has been experiencing any of the following symptoms of a fever, seek emergency medical treatment immediately:

  • A severe headache
  • Sore throat
  • Eye sensitivity to bright light
  • Breathing or chest pain
  • Mental confusion
  • Stiff neck when trying to bend forward 
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Extreme listlessness or irritability
  • Abdominal pain
  • Other unexplained symptoms 

Want To See a Doctor Right Now About a Fever?

Did your child wake up in the middle of the night warm to the touch? Is their fever and symptoms questionable enough that you think they should see a doctor, but the fever is not serious enough to go to the emergency room? UnityPoint Health Virtual Care allows you to speak to a provider by secure online video at all hours of the day and night. If medication is needed, a provider can prescribe medication from your appointment and send to the pharmacy of your choice.