High fevers and high body temperatures can lead to febrile seizures and skin bleedings. Learn how to recognize and treat fever.

November 18, 2014

What Causes a Fever?

The most common cause of fever is an infection. Common infections occur in the respiratory passages (ear, nose, throat, and lungs) and gastrointestinal system. An indication of fever is a raised body temperature, measured in the rectum, of 100.4°F or higher. Most fevers are not serious and are rarely dangerous; it is the body's defense system trying to kill germs that has caused the illness.

Elevated body temperature can occur after receiving a vaccination; wearing clothes that are too warm or too tight; participating in physical activity. Prolonged heat exposure, especially when accompanied by dehydration, can cause fever. Children who attend day care or who are in their first year of school are particularly susceptible to infections because they are in contact with other children. Children can also be infected if someone else in the family is ill.

How Can Fever Be Measured?

When taking your child's temperature, don't just feel his forehead. Taking a temperature with forehead strips or thermometers under the arm or in the ear are not entirely accurate. The most accurate temperatures reading are taken by placing a thermometer, which all parents of young children should have at home, in a child's rectum. There are several types of thermometers: mercury thermometers (these used to be the norm, but should no longer be used because mercury is a toxin), glass thermometers (uses alcohol to measure body temperature), and electronic and digital thermometers.

Complications of Fever

There are important warning signs to look for when your child has a fever. Call the doctor right away if she has neck and back stiffness. Check to see if your child can bend her head so that her chin touches her chest or if she can bend over and touch her toes. If she cannot, she may have a stiff neck or back. If a severe headache accompanies a stiff neck and fever, your child may have meningitis, which needs immediate medical emergency and hospitalization.

Other complications from fever brought on by meningitis include:

Febrile Seizures in Children

Some children may experience seizures from fever; these are known as febrile seizures (convulsions). Febrile seizures affect approximately 4 percent of all children, often between the ages of 6 months and 4 years. These seizures may seem frightening, even though the causes of the fever are usually mild infections of the respiratory or gastrointestinal tract and are almost always caused by viruses.

The seizures are usually caused by a rapid increase in body temperature in the early stage of an infection, often before parents have even realized their child has a fever. The seizures normally last between one and five minutes and will usually stop without treatment, but febrile seizures caused by serious infections can be prolonged, so seek emergency treatment immediately.

Skin Bleedings

Make sure to undress the child completely and examine her whole body for rashes. If you see purplish patches or tiny, bright red spots that do not fade when you press on them, these could be skin bleedings. Skin bleedings may be a sign of serious diseases such as meningitis and sepsis, which is an infection in the bloodstream. Sepsis and meningitis are medical emergencies, and require immediate treatment and hospitalization. Be especially aware of the danger signs above if there have been recent outbreaks of meningitis in your area.

Treatment for Fever

  • Letting your child rest in a quiet room can be helpful, but bed rest is necessary only if your child prefers it. If your child has a fever but can still be active, she can determine her own level of activity.
  • Give your child plenty of fluids to drink because fever can lead to dehydration.
  • Dress the child in lightweight clothes to avoid overheating.
  • Remove overly warm comforters and reduce the room temperature. Feverish children may feel cold, but over-dressing them will only make their temperature go up.
  • Give fever-reducing medication only if your child is older than 3 months, has a fever higher than 102°F, or is uncomfortable, listless, or unable to drink enough fluid. Children who have a fever but are in good condition do not need to take fever-reducing medication.

Before giving fever-reducing medication, read this information:

Do not give fever reducers to babies younger than 3 months unless directed by a doctor. The most common fever reducers for children are acetaminophen (Children's Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Children's Advil), which can be administered as liquid, tablets, or suppositories. Rectal suppositories are not as reliable as oral medications, and should be used only if a child is vomiting or unable to hold down the oral preparations.

Do not give your child a fever reducer that contains acetylsalicylic acid, such as aspirin, which can have dangerous side effects and can cause the development of Reye's syndrome. Make sure to contact the pediatrician about giving fever reducers if your child has had previous febrile seizures or who has epilepsy or a known heart condition when the body temperature reaches 101°F.

Always follow the suggested dosage guidelines on the packaging. All anti-fever medicines have side effects, so follow directions carefully.

Call 911 or your doctor immediate if your child has:

  • A fever and is under 6 months old
  • A fever between 104°F and 105°F
  • A fever for more than 48 hours and is between the ages of 12 months and 3 years
  • A fever and obvious breathing difficulties and trouble swallowing to the point of drooling
  • A fever and lethargy and listlessness, even after taking anti-fever medicines
  • A fever accompanied with a headache, stiff neck, or purplish patches or tiny red spots on the skin
  • A fever and severe pain
  • A fever and is having a seizure
  • A fever and reduced immune defenses (e.g., if the child is undergoing chemotherapy)
  • A fever and a lack of fluid intake and pain when urinating
  • A fever for more than 48 hours, and is between 12 months and 3 years old
  • A fever and sore throat for more than 24-48 hours
  • A fever for more than 2 to 3 days, and is over the age of 3
  • A fever and has recently returned from a trip abroad.

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