Fever and Taking Your Child's Temperature (page 2)
You've probably experienced waking in the middle of the night to find your child flushed, hot, and sweaty. Your little one's forehead feels warm. You immediately suspect a fever, but are unsure of what to do next. Should you get out the thermometer? Call the doctor?
In healthy kids, fevers usually don't indicate anything serious. Although it can be frightening when your child's temperature rises, fever itself causes no harm and can actually be a good thing — it's often the body's way of fighting infections. And not all fevers need to be treated. High fever, however, can make a child uncomfortable and worsen problems such as dehydration.
Here's more about fevers, how to measure and treat them, and when to call your doctor.
Fever occurs when the body's internal "thermostat" raises the body temperature above its normal level. This thermostat is found in the part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus knows what temperature your body should be (usually around 98.6ºF/37ºC) and will send messages to your body to keep it that way.
Most people's body temperatures even change a little bit during the course of the day: It's usually a little lower in the morning and a little higher in the evening and can fluctuate as kids run around, play, and exercise.
Sometimes, though, the hypothalamus will "reset" the body to a higher temperature in response to an infection, illness, or some other cause. Why? Researchers believe turning up the heat is the body's way of fighting the germs that cause infections and making the body a less comfortable place for them.
Causes of Fever
It's important to remember that fever by itself is not an illness — it's usually a symptom of an underlying problem.
Fever has a few potential causes:
Infection: Most fevers are caused by infection or other illness. A fever helps the body fight infections by stimulating natural defense mechanisms.
Overdressing: Infants, especially newborns, may get fevers if they're overbundled or in a hot environment because they don't regulate their body temperature as well as older kids. However, because fevers in newborns can indicate a serious infection, even infants who are overdressed must be evaluated by a doctor if they have a fever.
Immunizations: Babies and kids sometimes get a low-grade fever after getting vaccinated.
Although teething may cause a slight rise in body temperature, it's probably not the cause if a child's temperature is higher than 100ºF (37.8ºC).
When Fever Is a Sign of Something Serious
In the past, doctors advised treating a fever on the basis of temperature alone. But now they recommend considering both the temperature and a child's overall condition.
Kids whose temperatures are lower than 102ºF (38.9ºC) often don't require medication unless they're uncomfortable. There's one important exception to this rule: If you have an infant 3 months or younger with a rectal temperature of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher, call your doctor or go to the emergency department immediately. Even a slight fever can be a sign of a potentially serious infection in very young infants.
If your child is between 3 months and 3 years old and has a fever of 102.2ºF (39ºC) or higher, call your doctor to see if he or she needs to see your child. For older kids, take behavior and activity level into account. Watching how your child behaves will give you a pretty good idea of whether a minor illness is the cause or if your child should be seen by a doctor.
The illness is probably not serious if your child:
- is still interested in playing
- is eating and drinking well
- is alert and smiling at you
- has a normal skin color
- looks well when his or her temperature comes down
And don't worry too much about a child with a fever who doesn't want to eat. This is very common with infections that cause fever. For kids who still drink and urinate normally, not eating as much as usual is OK.
Is it a Fever?
A gentle kiss on the forehead or a hand placed lightly on the skin is often enough to give you a hint that your child has a fever. However, this method of taking a temperature (called tactile temperature) is dependent upon the person doing the feeling and doesn't give an accurate measure of temperature.
Use a reliable thermometer to confirm a fever, which is when a child's temperature is at or above one of these levels:
- measured orally (in the mouth): 99.5ºF (37.5ºC)
- measured rectally (in the bottom): 100.4ºF (38ºC)
- measured in an axillary position (under the arm): 99ºF (37.2ºC)
But how high a fever is doesn't tell you much about how sick your child is. A simple cold or other viral infection can sometimes cause a rather high fever (in the 102º-104ºF/38.9º-40ºC range), but this doesn't usually indicate a serious problem. And serious infections might cause no fever or even an abnormally low body temperature, especially in infants.
Because fevers can rise and fall, a child might have chills as the body tries to generate additional heat as its temperature begins to rise. The child may sweat as the body releases extra heat when the temperature starts to drop.
Sometimes kids with a fever breathe faster than usual and may have a higher heart rate. You should call the doctor if your child is having difficulty breathing, is breathing faster than normal, or continues to breathe fast after the fever comes down.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2009 The Nemours Foundation. All rights reserved.
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