While burning up might make a sick child feel worse, it means their body is doing its job: fighting infection.
So, your kid has a stuffy nose, achy bones, chills and a fever — telltale signs of a sick day. But before you reach for the ibuprofen, remember that a fever is part of their body’s immune response.
“You don’t always need to treat your child’s fever with medication,” says Stacey Cummings, MD, pediatrician at Geisinger. “Fevers are a sign of other things — usually fighting an illness. We treat fevers to make patients comfortable, but that doesn’t usually stop the disease process. Most fevers will go away as the illness improves within a few days.”
Fevers indicate your child’s immune system is working to combat whatever germs are causing them to be sick.
What is a fever?
A fever is an increase in body temperature, usually in response to infection. And a fever between 100.4 and 104° F can actually be beneficial. It turns on your child’s immune response and turns up the production of infection-fighting white blood cells.
Other symptoms of a fever include:
- Muscle aches
- Feeling weak
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Loss of appetite
“Fevers over 105° F are rare, as the brain knows when the body is getting too hot,” says Dr. Cummings. “The more important factor for treating a fever is whether the fever is causing your child discomfort, or if your child appears very sick, no matter their temperature.”
When taking your child’s temperature, a rectal thermometer will give the most accurate reading for young children, especially those under 6 months of age. An oral thermometer for cooperative children over 5 years old is the most accurate, but an ear thermometer is also a good option for older children, as it provides a quick digital reading.
How to break a fever
Fevers are typically treated with over-the-counter fever-reducers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Be sure to follow the dosage instructions and don’t combine them with other medications that might also contain these ingredients.
Also, never give a child aspirin — it can cause a dangerous condition called Reyes syndrome.
While over-the-counter fever-reducers can help, there are a few ways you can help bring down your child’s fever without medication.
Have them rest and drink plenty of fluids.
Too much activity can increase body temperature. Also, fevers can cause fluid loss, so drinking water, fruit juices or broth can help keep your child hydrated.
Keep your child cool.
Have them wear loose clothing and avoid bundling them up in lots of blankets. Running a fan in your child’s room can help keep them cool, too.
“Children should be permitted to bundle up or shed layers to their comfort level,” says Dr. Cummings.
Grab a washcloth.
Wet a washcloth with room-temperature water and put it on their skin to help reduce their temperature. Never use cold water, as that will only make the chills worse.
“Using cold water to bring down a fever can cause shivering, which is the body’s way of raising body temperature,” says Dr. Cummings.
Avoid using rubbing alcohol.
This method, which involves applying alcohol to a child’s skin, is a popular folk remedy for reducing a fever. But isopropyl alcohol can be absorbed by the skin and cause health problems, especially in children. “Do not use alcohol to lower a child’s body temperature,” says Dr. Cummings.
When to see a doctor for a fever
Contact your child’s pediatrician if your child’s fever is higher than 104° F or isn’t responding to treatment.
Also, seek medical attention if your child appears to be limp and lethargic and isn’t drinking fluids — whether they have a fever or not.
Babies up to 2 months old and children who have not received vaccines should get medical treatment if their fever is greater than 100.4° F. Fevers in infants and unimmunized children can be a sign of a serious bacterial infection.