Questioning Fevers in Children

Updated on October 22, 2018
VVanNess profile image

Victoria is a stay-at-home mom, author, blogger at Healthy at Home, and educator. She currently lives in Colorado with her family.

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Being the beginning of the cold and flu season, you can’t help but hear the stories of children coming down with fevers left and right. Many of these parents talk about having rushed their children to the hospital for a variety of temperatures from 99°F all the way through 102°F or 103°F. Did you know that a fever remains the most common complaint causing parents to take their child to the emergency room?

Many parents have false beliefs about fever due to myths being spread by others who also don’t know the truth, moms concerned about their kids, and even doctors and nurses that believe they can care for your child better than you can. These parents believe that a fever will hurt their child. They worry and lose sleep when their child has a fever. It is scary not knowing what’s happening, especially when it’s your first child, and no one wants to see their children in pain or uncomfortable.

However, fevers are actually harmless and very helpful. All kids get a fever from time to time. It’s natural and actually healthy. This simply means that your child is being exposed to different kinds of germs and illnesses, which in the end will help them develop a stronger immune system. A fever itself causes no harm to your child, but as a matter of fact, is very beneficial to their bodies. It's a sign that their body is fighting off the infection, or invading bacteria.

Parents typically rush to get rid of the fever in ear that it’s hurting their child somehow and needs to be treated, or brought down. Unfortunately many of the ways that a fever is treated nowadays is way more harmful to the child than the sickness itself. I believe that parents are truly trying to help, but just don’t know any different. I’m hoping that by helping you to understand what’s really happening and what to safely do about it, we can begin to see a shift in the health and well-being of our children.

Let’s start by understanding what a fever really is.

Table of Contents

For a listing of the type of topics that will be addressed, see below:

What is a Fever?
What Causes a Fever?
When Should You Be Concerned About a Fever?
At What Temperature Do You Give Tylenol to a Child?
What Temperature Do You Take a Child to the Emergency Room?
Fever Treatment in Children
Cautions About Reducing Fevers
Conclusion
Disclaimer
More Resources

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What is a Fever?

A fever is simply the natural response of your body to fight illness and build your immune system. The process in itself is pretty interesting.

When a foreign or enemy organism invades your body, it triggers the release of a substance that signals your brain to raise your body's temperature. It does this in a number of different ways, including:

  • Shivering, in order to generate heat
  • Release of the hormone TRH, which regulates your body temperature
  • Increasing your metabolic rate, the amount of energy being burned to raise your temp
  • Restricting blood flow to the skin to minimize heat loss, and
  • Raising the small hairs on your skin to suppress sweating, which would cool your body down

The fever, in turn, launches a number of beneficial body processes that help to ward off the invading bacteria or virus. Some of these include:

  • Increase in antibodies -- cells trained to specifically attack the exact type of invader that your body is suffering from
  • More white blood cells are produced to help fight off the invading bugs
  • More interferon, a natural antiviral and anticancer substance, is produced, which helps block the spread of viruses to healthy cells
  • Walling off of iron, which bacteria feed on
  • Increased temperature, which directly kills microbes
  • Improved ability of certain white blood cells to destroy bacteria and infected cells
  • Impairing the replication of many bacteria and viruses

This is a process that your body does naturally to protect itself. It’s important that we don’t interfere in this process. I’ll give you more information on that later. How do we get a fever though?

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What Causes a Fever?

Children get hot to the touch, and even red-faced, for many reasons. They might just be playing hard, dressing too warmly, be out in the hot weather, or have recently been crying or sleeping. However, once they have a chance to calm down, or come inside and cool down, the heat you feel or see should subside in 20 minutes or so. The hot feeling should be limited to their face, neck, and torso. This is just a temporary heat, and nothing that signifies a problem.

Then there are times when that hot feeling reaches down to their hands and feet and is way hotter than it should be. It’s hard to miss a true fever when your child has one, and likely the fever will accompany clinginess, lethargy, complaints about head, stomach or body pain, etc. You can very well see that they don’t feel good and are sick. However sometimes the cause for their fever may not be clear. Some of the most common reasons are outlined below:

  • Overdressing: This is one of the most common reasons for fevers in small infants. It’s easy to overdress a baby, assuming that their small bodies get cold faster, and trying to keep them warm. However, their size doesn’t generally determine how cold or hot they are and overdressing keeps their bodies from cooling down. If you suspect your little one has a fever, start by pulling off their clothes a little at a time, and see if they cool down.
  • Teething: From about 3 months old to 3 years old, this is generally the reason for a fever. Teeth pushing through tender gums is not only very painful for most babies, but it wreaks havoc on their bodies. Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly natural and is not a process you should try and stop, but don’t be alarmed if your child is very uncomfortable, tired, clingy, complains of a headache or ear pain, is feverish (up to scary temperatures), has diarrhea, rejects food and water, or even throws up. You’ll usually know it’s teething by signs like them pulling on their ears, pressing on their cheeks or jaw, finding relief by chewing on something, or feeling better eating or drinking hot or cold items.
  • Infection: Many fevers can caused by infection or other illness as simple as a cold. Ear infections and urinary tract infections are also very common reasons for a fever in children. A fever helps the body fight infections by stimulating natural defense mechanisms. Fevers will vary in severity depending on the child, but not necessarily on the illness. A simple cold can cause fevers as high as 106°F, and some of the worst infections can come without a fever at all.
  • Immunizations: Children of all ages have been known to have a fever as a result of their vaccines anywhere from a few minutes to up to two weeks afterward.
  • Medications: Some medications have been known to cause fevers in children as a side effect. Humans maintain body temperature within a narrow range. The administration of medication, of any kind, can upset the usual balance and cause a fever, as is most common with antibiotic use.
  • Allergies: Allergies can cause symptoms that are very similar to a cold or flu, such as a runny nose, sore throat, or sneezing. They also may make your immune system more vulnerable to a viral or bacterial infection. Allergies in and of themselves may not directly cause a fever, but they make you vulnerable to getting something that does. It’s important not to underestimate your allergies as they could easily lead to something worse.

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When Should You Be Concerned About a Fever?

Your body’s regular temperature is 98.6°F. At any given time during the day, this temperature may fluctuate due to a number of reasons like the weather, your activity level, and even a hot shower or drink. Low-grade fevers are usually considered 102°F or less, and it is considered a high fever between 103°F and 107°F. A fever itself is not life-threatening unless it is extremely and persistently high, like greater than 107°F.

Normal fevers between 100°F and 104°F are good for sick children. Fevers turn on the body's immune system, they help the body fight infection, and they even build immunity to future illness. Fevers with infections don't cause brain damage like many people believe. Only temperatures above 108°F can cause brain damage, and it's very rare for the body temperature to climb this high. This only happens when the air temperature is very high, like when a child is trapped in a closed car during hot weather.

Remember that a fever is generated by your body trying to protect itself. It’s not going to raise your temperature so high that it damages itself in any way. And don't worry too much about a child with a fever who doesn't want to eat. This is very common with infections that cause fever. No one wants to eat anything when they don’t feel good, especially when they have a fever. I sure don’t. For kids who still drink and pee normally, not eating as much as usual is okay. I would encourage fluids, like soups and popsicles though as much as possible.

But how high a fever is doesn't tell you much about how sick your child is. A simple cold or other viral infection can sometimes cause a rather high fever, but this doesn't usually mean there's a serious problem. In fact, a serious infection, especially in infants, might cause no fever or even a low body temperature, like below 97°F. Because fevers can rise and fall, a child might have chills as the body's temperature begins to rise. The child may sweat to release extra heat as the temperature starts to drop.

Fever is a positive sign. It is evidence that the child has an active immune system. Fever does not harm your brain or your body, although it does increase your need for fluids.

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At What Temperature Do You Give Tylenol to a Child?

It is very common or parents to try and get rid of a fever the moment they discover it in their children. Most other parents will actually recommend that you give your child either Tylenol, Ibuprofen, or both at alternating times in order to get it down. What most people don’t realize is that a fever has a specific purpose in your body. It improves your body's ability to get rid of the illness or infection. In the case of teething, it is simply protecting the child’s body from getting sick while it is going through something trying.

Lowering a fever is not only unnecessary, but it could actually hamper your child's recovery process, prolonging the illness rather than resolving it more quickly, or making them more vulnerable to getting sick. The dangers of Tylenol use, especially in children, are numerous, and include much more than just prolonging the illness. Some of these include future allergies, autoimmune disorders, and learning disabilities, along with:

  • Leaky Gut Syndrome: 50-70% of chronic Tylenol users (even children) have increased intestinal permeability, which is linked to autoimmune diseases like diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus, or celiac disease.
  • Liver Damage/Failure: Acetaminophen is the cause of many poisonings, which lead to liver damage. (Acetaminophen poisoning is responsible for nearly HALF of ALL acute liver failure cases in the US.)
  • ADHD: Exposure to acetaminophen in utero and in infancy, increased both the likelihood of a diagnosis and prescription, and more exposure increased the chances even more. Based on the researchers’ estimates, any exposure to acetaminophen increases the risk of an ADHD prescription by 30%.
  • Asthma: A major study of over 20,000 children suggests that giving this popular medicine even as infrequently as once per year could have a permanent, life-threatening health effect – Asthma. Children who receive Tylenol (or other acetaminophen) only once per year are at 70% greater risk for asthma while those receiving Tylenol once a month or more were shockingly 540% more likely to have asthma.
  • Cancer: New research shows that acetaminophen can be linked to blood cancers. Chronic acetaminophen users (as young as childhood even) have nearly twice the risk of developing blood cancer.
  • Autism: “In the early 1980’s about 42% of women used acetaminophen during the first trimester of pregnancy. The rate (of autism) climbed to over 65% in the early 1990’s, where it has essentially remained.”
  • Fatal Skin Reactions: Acetaminophen has been linked to very serious skin reactions, like Stevens-Johnson Syndrome and TENS.

Further Warnings

Acetaminophen, or Tylenol, (known as paracetamol in the UK) is also linked to more deaths per year than any other over-the-counter pain reliever. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend treating your child with fever-reducing drugs, even with higher temperatures. This is what they state on their website:

"Fevers generally do not need to be treated with medication has a history of febrile convulsions. The fever may be important in helping your child fight the infection.

Even higher temperatures are not in themselves dangerous or significant unless your child has a history of seizures or a chronic disease. Even if your child has a history of fever-related convulsions and you treat the fever with medication, they may still have this kind of seizure … If he is eating and sleeping well and has periods of playfulness, he probably doesn't need any treatment."

Remember that fever medicines may temporarily bring a temperature down, but getting rid of the fever also kills the body’s ability to fight the infection, and it won't treat the underlying reason for the fever.

Ibuprofen has all of its own dangerous side effects and warnings when it comes to giving it to children. You’ll want to take a look at those here. No medication is technically safe, especially when given to a child younger than 5. You’ll want to check out the warnings above before giving your little one Ibuprofen.

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What Temperature Do You Take a Child to the Emergency Room?

Most hospitals aren’t going to be concerned with a fever until it reaches 104°F or 105°F. And even so, the only thing they can do that you can’t at home is to put them on an IV so they don’t get dehydrated. Then they’ll give them Tylenol, Ibuprofen and likely an antibiotic. Otherwise, they just stick them in a bed and “monitor” them. There’s nothing really that a hospital can do that you cannot from home.

Dr. Troy Madsen, emergency room physician at University of Utah Healthcare “Get rid of your thermometer. Just don't use it on your kids unless they're the very young kids less than 12 weeks old. You could have 103°F fever with kind of a run of the mill cold, and you could feel absolutely miserable, but it doesn't mean you have to rush to the ER.”

As long as your child is generally healthy and doesn’t have any serious autoimmune issues, like cancer or HIV, or isn’t under 12 weeks old, a fever isn’t something to fear. Under 12 weeks old, and doctors worry about something serious going on. Otherwise, a fever is a good sign that their immune system is working properly.

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Fever Treatment in Children

There are many ways that you can help your child feel more comfortable when they have a fever without using medications. You could pull off most of their clothes and let the fan wash cool air over them. As my son slept, I would simply flip him over when he got too hot on one side to let that side cool down a bit. You could also wet down their hair or skin, wet down the lovey that they slept with, put a wet wash cloth on their forehead, or give them a sponge bath with lukewarm or room temperature water when they got too hot.

Of course, if they are still nursing, you could let them nurse for comfort, and your breastmilk would provide them with extra of the exact antibodies they needed to fight whatever was causing the fever. Otherwise, offer plenty of rest, cuddles, and liquids like water, homemade soup, homemade fruit popsicles made with water, or fresh fruit. Of course, keep them home from school or daycare for both their benefit and others.

The fever will come down on its own, but it’s important to let it do the work it’s there for. Letting a fever work will build your child’s immune system for the future, protect them from a worse infection or illness, and keep them healthier in the long run. Unfortunately there are plenty of parents that are willing to try some really dangerous methods for bringing down their child’s fever, besides Tylenol or Ibuprofen. We need to discuss some of these as a warning to parents.

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Cautions About Reducing Fevers

When your child has a fever, there are many safe treatments you can try to keep your child as comfortable as possible. But those listed below should not be one of them:

  • Ice packs – rapidly cooling the body will have the opposite effect and will cause your child’s temperature to go up as your child starts to shiver. Shivering is how your body tries to warm itself.
  • Ice bath - cooling down the body too fast is dangerous and can cause seriously increased fever and seizures
  • Cold water – not only is this seriously uncomfortable when you have a fever and can cause undue stress and discomfort, but cooling down the body too fast can be dangerous as well, like stated above
  • Rubbing alcohol - wiped on their body, it can cause poisoning when absorbed through the skin
  • Alcohol baths or wipes – for the same reason as above, using vodka or other liquor to bathe your child could not only poison them on the inside if they were to ingest any, but absorption through the skin could cause poisoning
  • Any medications – Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Advil, Motrin, Aspirin and many others have been proven to cause stomach ulcers, liver failure, higher incidents of autoimmune diseases and other complications. Aspirin in particular may interact with the virus or infection and lead to a possibly fatal condition known as Reyes' Syndrome.
  • Vick’s Vapor Rub – this acts as an irritant causing mucus to block airways. It can cause a skin rash at best and blocked airways at its worst.
  • Sweating it out – this method will also cause your child’s fever to get even worse, and worst case scenario, could push the temperature into the dangerous zone, above 107°F
  • Offering sugary beverages – sugar actually produces cold and flu-like symptoms in kids, like runny noses, too much mucus and sinus infection pain. The last thing your child needs is help being sick. Offer water or healthy alternatives, like homemade broth.

If you absolutely need to treat your child’s fever, do so safely using room temperature water and offering water to drink. Medications, alcohol, sugar and other extreme treatments only make them more sick.

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All kids get fevers, and in most cases they're completely back to normal within a few days. For older babies and kids, the way they act can be more important than the reading on your thermometer. Everyone gets a little cranky when they have a fever. This is normal and should be expected.

In most cases, it is not necessary to treat a child's fever. A child older than three months who has a temperature less than 102°F, who is otherwise healthy, and acting normally does not require treatment for fever.

Finally, remember that letting a fever run its course is typically the best choice to help your child fight off a viral or bacterial infection. However, you should also take steps to bolster your child's immune system, like providing proper nutrition without processed foods and refined ingredients, regular activity, a low stress environment, and plenty of sleep.

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Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Victoria Van Ness

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      • VVanNess profile imageAUTHOR

        Victoria Van Ness 

        3 weeks ago from Fountain, CO

        Oh man. What a heart wrenching story! I can't imagine the terror you felt. Thank goodness he was okay. Thank you for your comments.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        As a RN and mother of 3 boys I agree that babies and toddlers are rushed to the ER when a simple call to the doctor would relieve a parent's anxiety. This is a very important article for parents.

        I had 2 hospital experiences with my 3 boys. My oldest son was about 5 or 6 when he was coughing, and one night his temperature rose quickly to about 104.5. I used a cool bath to bring it down, but did take him to the ER. He had pneumonia and was admitted. It only happened once thank goodness.

        Then, we lived in a house with a pool, and I had a 22 year old babysitter. My youngest was about 2, and he had no fear. This woman was washing her car, and apparently after sunbathing while my youngest slept. We always kept the back door double locked. My son was found by his brother in the bottom of the pool. They quickly got him out and called 911, then me. I had a 20 min. drive to the hospital and was terrified he was dead. When I arrived I recognized his cry! He was admitted overnight and I held him in a blanket. About 2 in the morning the nurse came in, and my son had a fever if 102. They unwrapped him and the fever naturally went away!

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