One-third of visits to pediatric and general practitioner offices and emergency rooms are due to fever. There is plenty of anxiety with parents when it comes to fevers. Children can look awful when they have a fever and we often think that the fever is the problem, but actually the fever is trying to help us out when we are sick. So what is a fever and what does it mean?
After many studies looking at a person’s body temperature and associated diseases, doctors have established that infants (children less than 12 months old) are considered to have a fever if the temperature is greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Children older than one year old are considered to have a fever if the temperature is greater than 101 degrees. The most accurate way to take a temperature is rectally, especially when checking the temperature in infants. The next most accurate way to check the temperature is orally under the tongue because these two ways most accurately reflect our internal body temperature.
So why do we get fevers? Bacteria and viruses thrive in colder temperatures, so one of the body’s mechanisms to fight off infections is to raise the body temperature to help kill the bacteria and viruses. It is important to remember that the body has a very sophisticated internal regulator and a fever created by the body is not harmful to the body, nor does it cause neurological problems or any long-term complications. Some have thought that the higher the temperature, the more severe the infection, but studies have shown that there is no correlation between the two. Anyone with a fever will feel more drained however, because a fever raises your heart rate and makes the body work harder, which requires us to drink more fluids to prevent dehydration.
It is certainly important to talk to your doctor if your baby has a fever, but many studies have shown that a large majority of children who present with fever (especially early in the illness) as the only symptom when coming to see the doctor are not diagnosed with a cause for the fever initially. Times to always call your doctor about fevers are if your child has a high fever (greater than 103) for more than 5 days straight, if your infant is less than 3 months old and has a rectal temperature of 100.4, as these may be reasons to do a more extensive work-up.
As a parent, one of the most important things you can do is to help your child stay comfortable and to look for other signs of illness. So if your child has a fever, you can and certainly should give Tylenol or Ibuprofen and/or keep cool with cool wash rags to keep your child comfortable. Also, pay close attention to if they have been around anyone who has been sick and if they start to show any other signs of illness such as a cough, diarrhea, vomiting, a rash, or painful urination.
Fevers still make people nervous and it is especially hard for parents to see their precious babies feeling bad because of a fever, but it is important to remember what a fever means. The fever is the body’s natural way of fighting some sort of illness that is beginning or ongoing. The best time to check a temperature is if they are fussy or saying they are not feeling well. And remember that rest, fluids and medicine, when necessary to keep them comfortable, is the main goal when they are sick and have a fever.