Our clinic has been seeing a lot of influenza A over the past few months, with many nervous parents bringing in children with fevers as high as 105°F. Many parents are afraid when their child gets a fever, and it’s not hard to see why: There is something nerve-racking about a young child turning bright red, expressing discomfort, breathing quickly and suffering from a rapid heart rate.
It is true that a baby younger than 3 months old with a fever needs to be seen urgently. However, there are still many misconceptions about fever, so I want to talk about the myths and facts and lay to rest some of the fears keeping parents up at night. Keep reading for six myths about fevers and the facts that can help you take care of your child with confidence.
Myth: Fever from infection above 103° Fahrenheit is dangerous
Fact: Fevers caused by infection do not cause brain damage. It is high environmental temperatures that can cause harm. For example, a car in the summer can get dangerously hot faster than you might think. If a child’s temperature rises above 107.6°F due to the hot environment, we can see brain damage and sometimes even death.
Myth: The forehead is the best place to take a temperature
Fact: Getting the core temperature is best. Throughout the day, your child’s core temperature varies, typically between 96.8 °F and 100.3°F. When your child is ill, their temperature may go above or below this normal range.
Unfortunately, the temperature on the forehead is not very reliable. For example, if you unzip your baby from their sleep sack and footie pajamas, their forehead temperature may register as too hot. This being the case, the best way to take your baby’s temperature is rectally with a digital thermometer. For children older than six months, you can check their temperature in their ear, in their mouth or under their arm.
Myth: All fevers need to be treated with medicine
Fact: Fevers can be beneficial. Fevers only need to be treated if your child is uncomfortable or not drinking. If they have a fever but are feeling happy, we don’t need to treat it. Fevers can actually help your child’s immune system fight off viruses (which are what typically cause fevers).
“Mild fevers are a good indication that the immune system is doing its job. But fevers are not just a byproduct of the immune response,” said Maria Cohut, Ph.D. “In fact, an elevated body temperature triggers cellular mechanisms that ensure the immune system takes appropriate action against the offending virus or bacteria.”
Myth: With treatment, a fever should come down to normal
Fact: Fever treatment will reduce the fever, but only by a couple of degrees. Let’s say you stick the thermometer in your toddler’s mouth. It registers as 104°F, so you call your pediatrician and give your child some Tylenol. An hour later, their temperature is at 102°F. Don’t worry! The medicine is most likely working. Keep following your pediatrician’s advice.
Myth: If a fever is high, the cause is serious
Fact: The cause of the fever may resolve on its own. A lot of fevers caused by viruses will resolve on their own without treatment. But if your child is younger than three months, is having trouble breathing or hasn’t had a wet diaper for 12 to 24 hours, or you are concerned about how your child looks or acts, call your pediatrician.
Myth: You should always take your child to the doctor if they spike a fever
Fact: If your child appears well, it may be appropriate to watch and wait. Check out our “Is Your Child Sick?” resource at uvpediatrics.com/health-topics/child-sick/, call your pediatrician to talk through your child’s symptoms or consider downloading KidsDoc, a triage app for parents created by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
If you see some of these symptoms, however, it’s a good idea to get an appointment right away:
- A temperature above 100.3°F in a baby 3 months old or younger
- Nonstop crying
- Acts or looks very sick
- Trouble breathing
- A fever lasting more than four days
It can be scary when your child gets a fever, so it’s important for parents to understand the facts and disregard the myths. If your child appears well and happy, it may be appropriate just to watch the fever for 24 hours. But always feel free to call your pediatrician’s clinic if you have any questions or concerns.
Jonathen Bartholomew is a pediatrician at Utah Valley Pediatrics, which serves Utah families in nine locations throughout Utah Valley.