Why High Fever Temperatures Can Be Deceiving

A high temperature doesn't usually mean anything serious.

Temperature's Rising

It was the first night of their Disney vacation when Jennifer and David Kimock, of Yardley, Pennsylvania, awoke to find their 2-year-old son, Andrew, shaking and burning with fever in his portable crib. They decided to give him Tylenol and find a doctor in the morning, but Andrew threw up the medicine. "As we were cleaning it up, he let out this bloodcurdling scream," recalls Jennifer. "He was looking frantically at our bed and clinging to Dave and me. I'd read that kids can hallucinate with high fevers. I was terrified."

The Kimocks called the front desk, which summoned an ambulance. At the hospital, doctors reassured the couple that hallucinations are not unheard of with high fevers (Andrew's was 103.6 F.) and that their son had a simple ear infection and possibly a throat infection. They prescribed an antibiotic. By the next night, Andrew was enjoying dinner with his 5-year-old sister, Rebecca, and the Disney princesses.

Nothing can spike worry in a parent like a child's high fever. But a temperature itself is rarely dangerous, says Adam Pallant, MD, director of the Brown Medical School pediatric residency program at Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Children can safely tolerate fevers as high as 106 degrees, he says. Moreover, no matter what the reading on the thermometer, a fever simply means your child's immune system is doing its job.

What Fever Means

Most of us have been taught that a body temperature of 98.6 degrees is normal. But this number can actually vary by a degree or so, depending on the child, his activity level, the amount of clothing worn, and time of day. Thus, most doctors define a fever as any rectal temperature of 100.5 degrees or more.

A fever is usually a response to an infection by a virus, but sometimes by bacteria. The body's immune system senses this "invader" and releases chemicals signaling the brain to increase body temperature above normal. Researchers believe this is because most viruses and bacteria have difficulty surviving at higher temperatures. Some scientists speculate that fever may also rev up the body's immune response (though there's no proof that lowering your child's temperature slows recovery). Keep in mind that a fever itself is not an illness, but rather a symptom of an underlying cold or infection.

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