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Child Fever: What You Need to Know

Published on Mar 06, 2017
Authored by Alison Mitzner, MD

Fever can happen at any time of the year, but it’s most common during the fall and winter months—especially in children. You may worry when your child has a fever, but did you know that the fever is actually a sign that your child’s body is fighting off an infection? It is, and that’s a good thing.  

In children and adults, body temperatures can change depending on their age, time of day, and activity level. Generally, an oral temperature of 99° F or less, or rectal temperature of 100.4°F or less, is considered normal. Anything above these temperatures may indicate a fever is present.

How to Take your Child’s Temperature

There are different methods to taking your child’s temperature—such as orally (by putting the thermometer in your child’s mouth) and rectally (by inserting the thermometer in the child’s bottom).

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, taking temperatures rectally is the most accurate, and recommend rectal temperature readings for children under three years old. In older children who are 4 to 5 years and older, it’s okay to take a temperature by mouth.

Also, do not use mercury thermometers because they pose a possible risk of mercury exposure, which is dangerous. Use a digital thermometer, which is both safe and accurate.

Several types of digital thermometers are available.

  • Digital multi-use thermometers: This thermometer usually has a sensor at the tip and can be used for taking oral or rectal temperatures. You can also use it under your child’s arm, but keep in mind that underarm temperatures may also be less accurate.
  • Temporal thermometers (on the side of the forehead): This thermometer is swept across the forehead and can be used in children older than three months.
  • Tympanic thermometers (in the ear): This thermometer is placed inside the ear canal and can be used in children older than 6 months.

Remember that if the thermometer is not placed properly, or there is too much earwax (for tympanic thermometers), the readings may be incorrect.

When You Need to be Concerned

As a parent or guardian, it is important to know when a fever is serious enough to call the child’s pediatrician. The chart below offers a guide for when to call:

Child Fever: What You Need to Know

You also need to call the pediatrician if a child has any of these other symptoms:

  • Unusual drowsiness or fussiness
  • Unexplained rash
  • Neck stiffness
  • Repeated vomiting or complaining that the light hurts his/her eyes
  • Shortness of breath or not breathing easily
  • Seizures
  • Fever that lasts more than one day (in children younger than 2) or more than 3 days (in children 2 and older)

Providing Comfort

Your goal should be to make your child feel as comfortable as possible.
The following tips may help:

  • Offer fluids to help prevent dehydration and allow the body to cool down. Water, ice pops, soups, and Jell-O are good options. If your child can’t or won’t eat, do not force him or her
  • Allow your child to get plenty of rest
  • Use light clothing and blankets
  • Keep the house temperature at a comfortable level between 70°F to 74°F  
  • Keep your child at home while he or she has the fever and up to 24 hours after the fever goes away

Though it may be tough to see a child suffering with a high fever, it’s also good to know your child’s body is working to get better. In the meantime, trust your instincts about what’s right for your child. And, by all means, if you have any concerns at all, call your pediatrician.

Alison Mitzner, MD is the Senior Director, Medical Oversight Lead, Safety Evaluation and Reporting Worldwide Safety & Regulatory Operations

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After reading this article, how likely are you to use the tips mentioned above when caring for a child with a fever?


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