A fever is one of the body’s ways of signalling that something might be wrong. It’s also one of the things that mums worry most about because it’s not always easy to understand what a high temperature means.
What is a fever?
Most children have an average at-rest body temperature of between 36° and 37°C. A child at play might have a slightly higher body temperature, and a child that is sleeping might have a slightly lower body temperature. But, in general, ‘normal’ body temperature is right around 36/37°C.
A child is said to have a fever whenever their body temperature goes over 37.5°C. A fever that is between 37.5°C and 38.2°C is called a low-grade fever. A fever that is over 38.2°C is called a high-grade fever.
Because young children have less control over their body temperature, rapid rises in temperature when they are unwell is not uncommon. While temperatures of 40° are very high and extremely unusual in adults, they are not uncommon in sick children.
What causes fever?
Fevers happen when the body turns its thermostat up to fight infection. Almost like we use heat to kill germs, some scientists believe that the body turns up the heat to kill germs that get into the body. A fever is not an illness, but is a symptom that something in the body isn’t quite right. In addition to infections, fevers can result when your child is overheated and after your child receives an immunisation.
Are fevers serious?
Most fevers are not serious and will go away in a day or two. Knowing when a fever might be serious means understanding why your child has a fever and assessing his or her other symptoms. But, regardless of what causes the fever, high fevers, especially in very young children, are serious and should be treated immediately.
Can I prevent fevers?
Some fevers are preventable. If your child has a fever because he or she is overheated, preventing the fever can be as simple as dressing for the weather or activity. Staying out of the sun or wearing a hat can help prevent fever caused by sunburn or heatstroke. However, since a fever is often the result of an infection, the key to preventing fevers is to prevent the illnesses that cause them.
How do I treat a fever?
Because fevers actually serve a biological purpose, they don’t really need to be treated unless they are very high. Most of the time, we treat low-grade fevers because they can make kids uncomfortable and cranky. If your child has a low-grade fever but he is still playing, eating and drinking as usual, there’s really no need to do anything other than monitor your child’s temperature every few hours.
Some kids always experience a high temperature after receiving immunisations. If this is the case, your doctor may advise giving paracetamol before vaccination to control the fever and ease the discomfort of the injection.
Higher fevers may require some treatment, if only to make your child more comfortable. Make sure your child gets plenty of fluids and lots of rest. Try to encourage your child to drink a glass of water an hour. If his fever continues to rise, you might want to consider an age-appropriate analgesic like paracetamol or ibuprofen, but consult your doctor if it’s the first time you’ve given your child medications or if your child is under 12 months old. Always read the label, follow the instructions and ensure that the correct dosage is administered.
Use sound judgment in regard to room temperature and blankets. A child with a fever does not need to ‘sweat it out.’ If your child is too hot, remove a blanket or use light blankets. If your child is shivering, put on another blanket only until the shivering stops, then take the additional blanket off. Keep the room temperature comfortable, but not too hot or too cold.
Sometimes a lukewarm bath or sponge bath will help cool your child down and make them more comfortable. Don’t use cold water or put ice in the bath, since that can cause shivering and actually raise the body temperature.
Never give your child aspirin to treat a fever. Aspirin has been linked to Reye’s syndrome, a serious and life-threatening illness.
Young children with high temperatures can experience febrile convulsions as a result of a sudden spike in their body temperature. Febrile convulsions are fits that occur during a brief moment of unconsciousness. Febrile convulsion is due to the rapid change in body temperature rather than the actual temperature itself.
Should I call the doctor?
Most fevers can be easily handled at home. However, if your newborn has a fever, or your child has a persistent fever that can’t be controlled, call the doctor right away.
If your child experiences febrile convulsions, consult your doctor.
Call the doctor immediately if your child’s fever is accompanied by any of the following symptoms:
- Illness – not eating, drinking, playing, etc.
- Stiff neck
- Trouble swallowing
- Abnormal breathing
- Passing little, or no, urine
- Extreme drowsiness/sleepiness
- Bulging fontanelle (the baby’s “soft spot”)
What you need to know about fever
- Normal body temperature is between 36°C and 37°C.
- Fevers can be caused by infections, overheating and immunizations.
- Most fevers are not serious and can be treated at home.
- Call the doctor if a fever is very high, if your newborn has a fever, or your child experiences a febrile convulsion
- Don’t treat your child’s fever with aspirin unless your doctor tells you to do so.