Fever is not a disease in itself -- it's an important part of the healing process.
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.
Additional Facts About Fevers
- Fevers need to be treated only if they are causing discomfort (and usually a fever has to be above 102 or 103 degrees before making a child uncomfortable).
- Treating a fever usually doesn't bring the body temperature back to normal -- just down 2 or 3 degrees.
- Only 4 percent of children have fever seizures -- marked by a momentary loss of consciousness, eyes rolling back, shaking, twitching, or stiffening -- and when seizures do occur they cause no permanent harm.
- How your child looks is more important than the exact reading on the thermometer.
Even if you decide not to treat a fever, it is a good idea to keep track of it. It can give your doctor useful information when making a diagnosis, explains Dr. Joan Shook, director of the emergency room at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. The pattern of the fever can tell doctors when the illness is naturally running its course or when something more serious may be going on.
Making Little Ones More Comfortable
As parents know, higher fevers can be uncomfortable for kids and no one wants to see her child suffer. Fortunately, most kids don't feel the ill effects of fever until it gets above 102 or 103. Under those circumstances, using acetaminophen or ibuprofen is a good way to ease the ache of being sick, says Dr. Gary Kelsberg, associate professor of family medicine at the University of Washington.
If you give medications to your feverish kids, make sure you follow the dose instructions to the letter. Research has shown that many parents administer anti-fever drugs too frequently and in too high doses. "Choose the dose that matches your child's current weight, and use the dropper that came with the package," says Brown. "Different formulations of fever medications come in different strengths, so the dropper for one bottle of medicine might not be right for another bottle."
The exact dosage is important because acetaminophen can cause liver damage and ibuprofen kidney damage, even in relatively small overdoses, because of the size of children's bodies. Never give aspirin to children or adolescents with fevers -- the combination of aspirin and a viral infection may lead to Reye's syndrome, a rare yet potentially fatal liver disorder. After age 18, this risk virtually disappears.
If you want to try old-fashioned home remedies, provide cool drinks, place a fan near your child's bed to keep the air circulating, and use the old stand-by, a lukewarm (not cool) sponge bath. Above all, remember that most healing of all home remedies -- plenty of hugs and kisses.
When to Seek Help
There are times when a fever, sometimes in combination with other symptoms, should send you hightailing it to a doctor or emergency room. These include:
- A rectal temperature of 100.4 degrees or greater in an infant less than 6 weeks old. "Young babies are at more risk for certain serious bacterial infections, and fever is an indication of these," says pediatrician Ari Brown.
- A fever of more than five days duration.
- High fever accompanied by lethargy -- your child is limp and unresponsive, won't make eye contact, or generally just looks and acts really sick.
- High fever accompanied by any of the symptoms of meningitis: an unusual skin rash, severe headache, aversion to light, confusion, stiff or painful neck.
- Constant, inconsolable crying.
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.