A child with a high fever can be very scary for parents – and really uncomfortable for the child. But fever in itself isn’t dangerous, and it’s actually a good thing in many cases! Parents often express confusion about whether fever is dangerous, if high fevers are worse, when to treat with medication, and when kids need to see a doctor. In fact, in a recent study published in Pediatrics, 91% of parents surveyed thought fever caused harmful effects.
Fever itself isn’t dangerous – it doesn’t cause damage to the brain or other organs. It’s a natural response to infection meant to raise the body temperature to kill off bacteria and viruses, which are usually sensitive to a narrow temperature range. Some complications of high fevers can be worrisome though, like febrile seizures. Infants and young children may have seizures associated with rapid fever spikes – about 2-5% of kids in the U.S. will have at least one febrile seizure in their lifetime. Most of these are short, cause no lasting damage, and don’t drastically increase the likelihood of epilepsy – but they can be terrifying for parents to witness, especially the first time. The great news is, most kids with febrile seizures grow out of them by age five or six and have no further issues.
The old dogma that higher fevers mean bacterial infection rather than a virus haven’t proven to be true! Even viruses can cause high fevers in young children. But if your child has persistent high fevers lasting more than a couple of days, fevers that don’t improve with medication, or fevers that are getting WORSE and not better over the course of the illness – it’s time to get checked out by your primary care doctor. Similarly, if your child has symptoms like dehydration (or fewer wet diapers in babies), is confused/irritable/difficult to arouse, is under three months old, or you just feel that something isn’t right – be sure to go to the doctor.
We tend to have a little bit of “fever phobia” – not just parents, but in the hospital too. The way to think about it is really that we treat the child and not the number. Since we know that fever can be a good thing and can help fight off infections, it makes sense that we wouldn’t want to constantly suppress it with medication – not to mention that giving even age-appropriate medicines like acetaminophen or ibuprofen around the clock can have side effects. Too much acetaminophen can cause liver damage, and too much ibuprofen can hurt the kidneys. They’re absolutely okay to use when needed (just make sure you follow the dosing recommendations for your child’s age and weight) but we shouldn’t give them every few hours for days on end. Save the medicine for when your little one is uncomfortable, can’t sleep, or has pain. Got a fever but feeling ok otherwise? We recommend fluids, rest, and lots of snuggles.
Bottom line is that parents are experts at knowing when something is really wrong with their child – trust your instincts! And know that you can always call your pediatrician or family doctor for advice.