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Tips for How to Fight Your Child's Fever (and What You Should Avoid)

by Vannessa Rhoades 22 Dec 2022
Tips for How to Fight Your Child's Fever (and What You Should Avoid)

A fever is one of the most common cold symptoms and one that often causes worried caregivers to call the pediatrician. As a parent, it can make you feel nervous and even a little helpless to see your little one sick and uncomfortable. The good news, however, is that most children’s fevers are brief and relatively harmless. They are usually a sign that your child’s immune system is working exactly as it should to fight off an infection. 

Most fevers are caused by viruses (like a cold or the flu) or bacteria (such as strep throat or some ear infections). As a caregiver, your duty is to keep your child as comfortable as possible while monitoring their temperature and other symptoms in case they need further medical attention. Let’s take a closer look at fighting a fever at home, including what to do (and not to do) when your child has one.

What is a Fever and Why Does It Happen?

Most physicians define a fever as a body temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) and higher when taken rectally. Fever is typically triggered by stimulation of the body's immune system. This response can help the body’s efforts to attack temperature-sensitive germs. In other words, by making the body a warmer, less favorable host, the infectious agents are less likely to replicate and multiply. 

The hypothalamus, located at the base of the brain, acts as the body’s temperature regulator. It does this by detecting the presence of pyrogens in the bloodstream. Pyrogens are biochemical substances generated by certain pathogens and by infected body tissue. When the hypothalamus detects pyrogens, it triggers the body to create and retain more heat, hence producing a fever. Children’s immune systems are less mature and less experienced with different types of pathogens, thus causing them to generally get faster and more elevated fevers than adults.

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Signs Your Child May Have a Fever

Children with fevers may become increasingly uncomfortable as their temperature climbs. In addition to a body temperature higher than 100.4°F (38°C), you may also notice the following symptoms:

  • crankiness
  • loss of appetite
  • increased thirst
  • decreased activity or less talking
  • feeling heat radiating from your child’s body

Treat the Fever or Let It Run Its Course?

If your child is older than 6 months and has a fever, they likely do not need to be treated for the fever unless they are uncomfortable. The key is to monitor your child's behavior. If they are drinking, eating, sleeping normally, and are able to play, you probably don’t need to treat the fever. Instead, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that you wait to see if the fever improves by itself.

The Mayo Clinic provides the following table of recommendations for people who are generally healthy (e.g., not immunocompromised or taking chemotherapy drugs and haven't recently had surgery). The values listed in the table below are for temperatures taken with rectal and oral thermometers. These thermometers provide the most accurate measurement of core body temperature. Other types of thermometers, such as ear (tympanic membrane) or forehead (temporal artery) thermometers, although convenient, provide less accurate temperature measurements.



What to do

0-3 months

100.4 F (38 C) or higher taken rectally

Call the doctor, even if your child doesn't have any other signs or symptoms.

3-6 months

Up to 102 F (38.9 C) taken rectally

Encourage your child to rest and drink plenty of fluids. Medication isn't needed. Call the doctor if your child seems unusually irritable, lethargic or uncomfortable.

3-6 months

Above 102 F (38.9 C) taken rectally

Call the doctor; he or she may recommend that you bring your child in for an exam.

6-24 months

Above 102 F (38.9 C) taken rectally

Give your child acetaminophen (Tylenol, others). If your child is age 6 months or older, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) is OK, too. Read the label carefully for proper dosage. Don't give aspirin to an infant or toddler. Call the doctor if the fever doesn't respond to the medication or lasts longer than one day.

2-17 years

Up to 102 F (38.9 C) taken rectally for children ages 2-3, or taken orally for children older than 3

Encourage your child to rest and drink plenty of fluids. Medication isn't needed. Call the doctor if your child seems unusually irritable or lethargic or complains of significant discomfort.

 2-17 years

 Above 102 F (38.9 C) taken rectally for children ages 2-3, or taken orally for children older than 3

If your child seems uncomfortable, give your child acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others). Read the label carefully for proper dosage, and be careful not to give your child more than one medication containing acetaminophen, such as some cough and cold medicines. Avoid giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Call the doctor if the fever doesn't respond to the medication or lasts longer than three days.



What You Can Do to Fight a Fever at Home

Begin by taking steps to keep your little one relaxed and hydrated naturally. You don’t need to dispense medication at the first sign of a fever (especially to babies younger than 2 months old). Here are a few tried-and-true tips for fighting a fever naturally from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and Stanford Medicine Children’s Health:

  • Keep your child’s room comfortably cool.
  • Dress your child in lightweight clothing. Excess clothing will trap body heat and cause the temperature to rise.
  • Urge them to drink water or a store-bought electrolyte solution.
  • Encourage them to rest and not overexert themselves with play.
  • Give your child a lukewarm bath or sponge them down with tepid water (85 to 90°F). Don’t allow your child to shiver from cold water as it can raise the body temperature. Never leave your child unattended in the bathtub.

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What You Shouldn’t Do

There are also a few treatments you shouldn’t offer a child with a fever:

  • Never give a child aspirin to treat fever or discomfort. Aspirin has been linked with numerous side effects, including upset stomach, intestinal bleeding, and Reye syndrome, a serious illness that affects the liver and brain.
  • Never use rubbing alcohol on your child to treat fever. This can be inhaled or absorbed into the skin, causing serious problems such as a coma.

Treating Fever with Pain Medication

If your little one is achy, acetaminophen and ibuprofen may help them feel better.

  • Acetaminophen for children is available in both liquid form and chewable tablets. It’s also available as a rectal suppository for children experiencing stomach distress and vomiting.
  • Ibuprofen is available in liquid drops for infants (stronger, more concentrated), liquid for older children, as well as chewable tablets for older children.

Always carefully read the medication label and follow the directions precisely. Directions and dosage differ based on the particular medication, along with the individual age and weight of the child. Consult your pediatrician about the right dose for your child. If your child is taking other medicines check the ingredients. If they include acetaminophen or ibuprofen, let your child's doctor know.

When to Seek Help

Typically, a fever is nothing to worry about, especially if your child only has a mild fever. That said, there are circumstances that require immediate medical attention. Call your doctor right away if any of the following conditions are present: 

  • Your child is 3 months old or younger and has a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher. Fever in a young baby can be a sign of a dangerous infection.
  • Your child (any age) has repeated fevers above 104°F (40°C).
  • Your child is younger than 2 years of age and has a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) that lasts for more than a day.
  • Your child is age 2 or older and has a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) that lasts for more than 3 days.
  • Your baby is fussy or cries and can't be soothed.

The Takeaway

While a child’s fever can be worrisome, keep in mind that in most cases, it’s temporary and a sign that their immune system is working to keep them healthy. If your child is still playing, eating and drinking well, alert, and happy, it’s likely that their fever isn’t coming from something serious. You can always consult your pediatrician — even if it’s only for your own peace of mind.

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