Fevers can be a scary thing for anyone regardless of age or relative health. But when your child gets a fever, it can be downright terrifying. New parents are especially susceptible to panic when their sick child has a fever, and they often feel the need to immediately rush to the emergency room for treatment. In fact, one study indicated that up to a third of pediatric emergency room visits occur because of concerns about high fever. The vast majority, however, don’t actually require emergency attention. That same study determined that parents’ lack of understanding about what a fever means was the primary reason for panic.
What is a Fever?
Before being able to knowledgeably determine whether or not a fever is truly dangerous, it’s helpful to understand what exactly a fever is. A fever, also technically known as pyrexia, is defined as an increase in body temperature beyond the normal range. Normal body temperature can vary based on a variety of factors, including age, gender, level of exertion, emotions, and even the part of the body used to measure temperature. The normal range that covers these factors is understood to be between 97.7–99.5 °F (36.5–37.5 °C). Even though anything above that range could be considered a fever, most healthcare providers define it as 100.4 °F when taken with a rectal thermometer (100 °F taken orally or 99 °F taken under the armpit).
Beyond being a measurement, a fever is also often an indicator of an immune response to a pathogen or illness. When the body’s immune system senses some types of infection, for instance, it causes the body to generate and retain more heat in order to benefit the body’s fight against the pathogen. This response is closely linked to the kind of tissue inflammation you experience when you have the common cold; while the sensation of a fever (or a runny nose) is unpleasant in the moment, it simply means that your body’s immune system is functioning properly.
When Should You Worry?
As noted above, any elevated temperature above the normal range can be considered a fever, but doctors and other healthcare professionals don’t become alarmed until the child’s temperature is 104 °F or above. The primary reason for this is that a fever lower than that almost always represents a normal, healthy response to whatever illness is affecting the body. In other words, anything under 104 °F shouldn’t be cause for concern and wouldn’t require a visit to an emergency room.
In fact, the specific temperature measurement alone is often not as effective as evaluating additional symptoms. If your child has any kind of fever in addition to the following signs and symptoms, you should call 911 right away:
- too weak to move or stand up
- won’t wake up
- severe trouble breathing and can barely speak or cry
- red or purple spots/dots on the skin
- any other indications of a life-threatening emergency
Most of the above symptoms are rare and can happen regardless of how bad a child’s fever is, so if your child’s symptoms include any of these, you shouldn’t wait until the fever gets higher. There are other signs and symptoms related to a high fever that can be a cause for concern. If your child is experiencing any of the following, it is recommended you seek medical care like that provided by TrustCare Kids, an urgent care facility dedicated to walk-in pediatric care:
- fever over 104 °F (or any fever in children younger than 12 weeks)
- trouble breathing
- trouble swallowing
- chills and shaking
- weak immune system (pre-existing condition)
- fever lasts longer than 3 days
- fever returning after no fever for 24 hours
- has febrile seizures (they are usually not serious and pass within a few minutes)
Potential Causes of a Fever
There are numerous potential causes of a fever in kids, but the fever is always a symptom of some other illness or disease. Most fevers are caused by some kind of infection, including both bacterial and viral pathogens. Infectious diseases like meningitis, influenza, and other upper respiratory tract infections are often behind an increase in body temperature as just a normal part of immune system function. Chickenpox, tonsillitis, and ear infections are also some common childhood ailments that might cause a run-of-the-mill fever. It can also be a symptom of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus.
Perhaps surprisingly, another possible cause of a fever is simply being overheated. Sometimes, out of concern for cold weather, excess bedding or clothing (or swaddling in infants) can actually raise the child’s body temperature enough to trigger a fever. Though much rarer, certain medications, brain diseases, cancer, and autoimmune diseases may also be the reason for a fever.
When and How to Treat a Fever
When a child has a fever, many parents understandably experience a strong urge to “fix” the problem as quickly as possible. As noted earlier, however, sometimes a fever is actually a good thing in that it represents a natural, healthy immune process that the body uses to heal. In such cases, the only recommended treatment is to let the fever run its course. In fact, using medication or other treatments to force a reduction in body temperature can actually have the opposite effect and cause the illness to linger longer or even increase in severity. This is why watching and waiting for some of the other signs listed here is often the best course of action.
There are times when the fever is high enough to cause significant discomfort for the child (usually around 102 °F) but not high enough to require immediate medical attention (104 °F). A fever with a temperature in this range may cause chills, sweats, aches, irritability, or a loss of appetite. In such situations, there are a few remedies that can bring comfort and relief for the child until the fever comes down on its own:
- ibuprofen (Advil)
- analgesic (Tylenol)
- dress the child more lightly so that less body heat is trapped
- push fluids like water or juices (or popsicles!)
- lukewarm bath
- NO aspirin (it can lead to a condition called Reye’s syndrome)
TrustCare Kids is Here to Help!
We know how scary it can be when your child gets a fever, but the good news is that most of the time the danger of bigger problems is pretty low. Sometimes, though, other symptoms are present, and you’re just not sure whether it’s a passing concern or a serious illness. TrustCare Kids was created to be a valuable resource for parents when you need help answering that question.
TrustCare Kids is open seven days a week with convenient hours, and it is specifically designed to provide for pediatric primary care and pediatric urgent care. If your child has a fever and you’d like to bring him or her in to get checked out, you can either make an appointment to see a pediatrician or walk in to receive pediatric urgent care; simply visit TrustCare Kids for further information on each.
This post has been medically reviewed by Dr. Catherine Phillippi, pediatrician at TrustCare Kids. She earned her medical degree from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in 1999 and completed her pediatric training at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences/Arkansas Children’s Hospital.