The Dos and Don'ts of Fighting a Fever

Should you really feed a cold and starve a fever? We asked doctors what you should (and shouldn't) do the next time your child's temperature rises. 

electrolyte drink, washcloth, tylenol
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When your child's temperature rises, you worry. But fevers can actually be beneficial, since they kick the immune system into high gear to help the body fight infection, says Anne Tran, MD., a pediatric hospitalist at Kaiser Permanente in Hawaii. Read on to learn how to handle the heat and break a fever.

Do Use Medication

If the fever is mild and child looks otherwise well, you may decide to let the fever run its course. But Dr. Tran says you can also relieve discomfort with acetaminophen (for babies over 3 months) or ibuprofen (for babies over 6 months) . Keep in mind, however, that medications mask symptoms rather than break a fever. "At most, the meds will bring a fever down a degree or two —just enough to make your child feel better," says Ari Brown, M.D., a Parents advisor and author of Baby 411. Check with your doctor for the appropriate dosage.

Don't Starve a Fever

Ignore the old saying, "Feed a cold, starve a fever," says pediatrician David L. Hill, M.D., author of Dad to Dad: Parenting Like a Pro. Children with a fever may be less hungry than normal, but when they do want to eat, offer a generally healthy, well-balanced diet. Nourished kids may be better able to fight infections.

Do Keep Him Hydrated.

Fever sweats can dehydrate a child, so offer lots of water. If he's vomiting or has diarrhea, give him an electrolyte drink instead.

Don't Underdress (or Overdress) Your Child.

It's natural for a kid developing a fever to dress more warmly than others in the room. But Dr. Tran says to make sure she's not overdressed or covered in thick blankets, as this can prevent body heat from escaping and cause the temperature to rise even more. Your child will also want to cool down as she's breaking her fever, and Dr. Hill warns not to overdo it.

Do Consider Using a Lukewarm Compress.

If your child is vomiting and unable to keep the medicine down, fill your tub with an inch or two of tepid water and use a washcloth to dribble it over your child's trunk, arms, and legs to lower her core temperature.

3 Considerations for Breaking a Fever

Before you call the doctor, take these three factors into consideration.

1. The Age of Your Child

Generally, the younger your child is, the more worrisome a fever is. Call the doctor for the following:

  • Newborns up to 3 months with a fever of 100.4°F or higher
  • Babies age 3- to 6-months with a fever of 102°F or higher
  • Anyone older than 6 months with a fever of 103°F or higher.

2. The Duration of the Fever

For a baby 3 to 12 months old, call the doctor for any fever 100.4°F or higher that lasts more than 24 hours. Also call your doctor if the fever lasts two or more days with no improvement in a child between 1 and 2 years, and for kids older than 2 if it hasn't improved after three days.

3. Other Symptoms

Phone your practitioner if you spot certain signs that suggest an illness requiring more treatment, such as strep throat, an ear infection, or a urinary-tract infection. Worrisome symptoms include repeated vomiting and/or diarrhea, severe ear pain, headache, sore throat, stiff neck, listlessness, trouble breathing, unexplained rash, and signs of dehydration (fewer wet diapers, decreased or no tears).

Also get your child checked out if she's acting unusual, or if she suffers from chronic health problems (such as asthma or diabetes). In rare cases, a fever may cause febrile seizure—"but these are mostly harmless and do not cause lasting damage," says Dr. Tran.

Updated by Nicole Harris
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