Fever in children : When to worry and what to do

boy cranky

Fever in a child often causes more fear in parents than it actually deserves. This is because of the misconception that a rise in body temperature is associated with illness. However, a fever is a child’s friend! It is a sign that your child’s body is responding to a natural infection, and it is a normal response of the immune system.

Instead of focusing on the fever, you should ideally help your child feel comfortable. Ensure he gets enough rest and fluids to help his body fight the source of infection. Unfortunately, this isn’t usually the case. Many parents see the fever as an illness in itself, and do not wait for it to run its course. Instead, they start medications with immediate effect, to lower the fever.

The right approach to handling a fever is to try and understand what could be the cause instead of worrying about the temperature itself. Let us look at this in greater detail.

Common causes of fever in children

A fever is the body’s natural response to fighting anything that may affect it’s well-being. There are many likely causes for it, but infection is one of the most common reasons. Infections may be caused by different types of germs like bacteria and viruses. The agent that causes it determines the accompanying symptoms.

Bacterial and viral infections are very common in young children, and the severity depends on the specific type of agent. Fevers may accompany common and less severe infections like the common cold, and also be present with long-lasting infections and severe conditions like chicken pox, meningitis and pneumonia.

Apart from infections, fevers may also be caused by heat strokes, as a result of allergic reactions to drugs or vaccines, gastrointestinal diseases, and other relatively uncommon conditions. For more information on these various causes of fever, take a look at this article on the Health Direct website. (Ref:https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/what-causes-fever-in-children)

What is an unsafe fever temperature in a child: young children and babies

When your child has a fever, it is more important to focus on the symptoms accompanying it than the temperature itself. This should help you decide whether you should seek medical condition. For instance, you should immediately take your child to the doctor even if he has just a low-grade fever, when it is accompanied by a rash or your child complains of a stiff neck. This is more dangerous than when your child is active and fine, despite a high temperature.

The only exception is when your child is between 3 and 6 months old. In this case, any time his temperature goes above 101 degrees C warrants medical attention. Once your child is older than 6 months, you needn’t worry about the temperature as much as you should about the symptoms that accompany the fever.

Experts recommend using fever medication only if an elevated temperature makes your child uncomfortable. If he is active, feeding as usual and not displaying other symptoms, let his fever run its course unless it rises above a specific level.

The NHS choices website suggests that a temperature above 99.5 deg F should be considered a fever in children. (Ref:http://www.nhs.uk/chq/pages/1633.aspx?categoryid=62&subcategoryid=64 )

Measuring temperature and fever in young children and babies

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There are different ways in which you can measure your child’s temperature. It can be performed orally, rectally, in the armpit or in the ear. Some of these are more precise than others in obtaining the actual body temperature.

Rectal temperatures are generally considered to be the most accurate. Hence these are recommended for young children, since their temperature has to be taken correctly and quickly. The other ways of measuring temperature will show slight variations from the temperature you would obtain if the measurement was done rectally. Nonetheless, they will work too.

When you inform your doctor about your child’s fever, mention the method used to obtain the temperature. The correlation between the different types of temperature measurements are as follows:

  • Temperature measured orally (by placing the thermometer in the mouth) is usually 0.5degF to 1degF lower than the corresponding rectal temperature.
  • Temperature measured by placing the thermometer in the armpit (axillary temperature) is 0.5degF to 1degF lower than corresponding rectal temperature
  • Temperature measured in the ear (tympanic temperature) is 0.5degF to 1degF lower than corresponding rectal temperature reading.

The readings will also depend on the accuracy and quality of the instrument used for the purpose. You should always check the instrument manual with the device to identify the accurate measurement. For more details on temperature measurement and thermometer comparisons, take a look at this article on the WebMD website. (Ref:http://www.webmd.com/children/tc/fever-temperatures-accuracy-and-comparison-topic-overview)

How to treat a fever:

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You can simply ignore low-grade fevers if there are no other symptoms. Help your child be comfortable, and administer fever medication only if necessary. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are usually effective in bringing down the temperature. Always stick to the recommended dosage for his age and body weight and administer it with the correct time gap between doses. This information will usually be available in the leaflet with the medication. If you are unsure, check with your pharmacist or medical practitioner.

For severe symptoms, always take your child to the doctor. If the fever was caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics depending on the severity. Apart from fever medication, the doctor may also suggest symptomatic treatment to ease discomforting symptoms that are present as a result of the infection.

Make sure your child has plenty of fluids when he is running a fever. Give him food that is easy to digest and dress him in light, loose-fitting clothes to keep him comfortable. Also see to it that he rests sufficiently and isn’t too active during the fever.

Keep him at home and monitor whether he is eating, drinking and urinating as usual. Your child may seem more tired than usual, but that is normal.

Home-remedies to bring down a fever

baby infant

Although you needn’t administer fever medication to reduce your child’s fever, you can still attempt to naturally bring down his temperature. This is recommended as a high temperature can make your child uncomfortable and cause him to become dehydrated.

In young children, a fever that goes above 100.4 deg F can result in a febrile seizure. Although this doesn’t cause any lasting damage, it is a very frightening scenario for a parent. These seizures end in a few minutes, and there may be more episodes till the child turns 6 years old. Doctors recommend that parents administer fever medication to children at the onset of a fever, if they have a history of febrile seizures. More information on febrile seizures is available here, on the Kids Health website. (Ref:http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/febrile.html )

Apart from fever medication, there are other ways too in which you can reduce the temperature and avoid such an episode. Some of them are as follows:

Lukewarm bath: It is a good idea to give your child a bath in lukewarm water. When the skin is wet, the fever will make the water evaporate, causing the body to cool down. However, never give your child his bath in cold water as this will cause shivers that will shoot the fever up.

Cool the body from the inside: Feed your child cool foods and the body will cool down from the inside as well. Chilled foods like popsicles and yogurt will help with this.

Use a fan: Let your child rest in a well-ventilated room. Improve the chances of the temperature coming down by placing a fan in the room. As the air cools down, so will your child’s body.

Sponge high-heat areas: Apply a wet sponge to high-heat areas like the armpits, forehead, palms and feet to encourage heat loss in your child’s body.

Hydrate with clear fluids: More water is lost from the body when there is a fever. Encourage your child to drink plenty of water and fluids to replenish the lost liquids. Vitamin C drinks like orange juice will aid the immune systems in fighting off infection.

Fever symptoms to worry about: when to seek immediate medical attention

Most fevers are no cause for worry. They can be handled at home, and are a natural phase in your child’s growth. However, there are certain conditions in which you should immediately seek medical attention. These are as follows:

  • If your child suffers from a sore throat along with the fever.
  • If your child has a rash, complains of a stick neck or has breathing difficulties
  • If your child experiences pain when urinating
  • The fever goes above 104degF
  • If the fever lasts more than one week, even if your child looks and feels well
  • If the fever is accompanied by diarrhea or vomiting, and your child is unable to keep any medicines or food down.
  • If your child is feeling listless and is too tired to do anything
  • If your child has a prolonged febrile seizure that lasts more than 5 minutes

Apart from the above mentioned symptoms, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor if your gut feeling says there is something wrong. It is always better to be safe than sorry!

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