Back in 1980, a prominent pediatrician named Barton Schmitt coined the term "fever phobia" to describe the understandable desire of many parents to bring down fevers in their children as quickly as possible. Although almost a quarter-century has passed since Schmitt's phrase caught on, fever phobia is still alive and well.
A recent study in the journal Pediatrics shows that 91 percent of parents surveyed thought that a fever can cause harmful effects, with 56 percent of caregivers very worried about the potential harm of fevers for their own children. And 89 percent of parents reached for such fever reducers as acetaminophen and ibuprofen before temperatures reached 102 degrees.
Why should any of this matter? Because it is often not necessary -- and may not even be wise -- to be too quick to rush for the medicine cabinet when your child has a fever. "Nothing bad is going to happen if you don't treat the fever," says Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). She's also author of Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Baby's First Year (Windsor Peak).
A fever, not surprisingly, indicates that your child is fighting off some kind of infection, such as a simple cold, the flu, or an ear infection. It is not an illness in itself. In fact, a fever may do some good. A study published in the February 2004 Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that children who ran a fever during their first year were less likely to develop allergies later in childhood than children who did not have fever.
More importantly, according to the AAP, a fever can help your child's body fight off infection. Many illness-causing microbes do best at the body's normal temperature. A fever raises the temperature beyond which certain microbes need to reproduce. A fever also kicks your child's immune system into high gear, spurring the rapid production of bug-clobbering white blood cells. A small but growing body of research shows that letting a fever run its course may reduce the length and severity of such illnesses as colds and flu.
As for the concern among parents that fevers can have harmful effects, these instances are very rare. The brain has an internal regulatory mechanism that prevents fevers caused by infections from getting higher than 105 or 106 degrees. Body temperature must get above 108 degrees to cause damage. Temperatures this high are caused only by exceptional circumstances, such as central nervous system disorders or heatstroke.