Fever, Age 11 and Younger

Topic Overview

Fever is the body's normal and healthy reaction to infection and other illnesses, both minor and serious. Fevers help the body fight infection. Fever is a symptom, not a disease. In most cases, fever means your child has a minor illness. Often you must look at your child's other symptoms to determine how serious the illness is. Although it may be scary when your child's temperature goes up, fever is not harmful.

Normal body temperature

The average normal body temperature is about 98.6°F (37°C). It usually rises during the day from a low of 97.4°F (36.3°C) in the morning to a high of 99.6°F (37.6°C) in the late afternoon. Each child has a normal temperature range that may be different from another child's. Mild increases to 100.4°F (38°C) can be caused by exercising, wearing too many clothes, taking a hot bath, or being outside in hot weather.

Fever

Temperature varies depending on how you take it. The most common ways to measure it are:

  • Under the tongue.
  • In the armpit.
  • In the rectum.
  • In the ear.

You can also use:

  • Forehead temperature strips.
  • Pacifier thermometers.

Some methods may not be as reliable or accurate as others. For information about taking accurate temperatures, see the topic Body Temperature.

If you think your child has a fever but you are not able to measure his or her temperature, it is important to look for other symptoms of illness.

Children tend to run higher fevers than adults. The degree of fever may not indicate how serious your child's illness is. With a minor illness, such as a cold, a child may have a temperature of 104°F (40°C); a very serious infection may not cause a fever or may cause only a mild fever. It is important to look for other symptoms along with the fever.

A fever in a healthy child is usually not dangerous, especially if the child does not have other symptoms and the fever goes away in 3 to 4 days. Most children who have a fever will be fussy and play less and may not eat as much as usual.

High fevers may make your child uncomfortable, but they rarely cause serious problems. There is no medical evidence that fevers from infection cause brain damage. The body limits a fever caused by infection from rising above 106°F (41.1°C). But outside heat—such as from being in a car that is parked in the sun—can cause body temperature to rise above 107°F (41.7°C), and brain damage can occur.

Childhood immunizations can reduce the risk for fever-related illnesses, such as Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) infection. Although no vaccine is 100% effective, most routine childhood immunizations are effective for 85% to 95% of the children who receive them. For more information, see the topic Immunizations.

Causes of fever

It is not unusual for a preschool-aged child to have 7 to 10 viral infections in a year. Each new viral infection may cause a fever. It may seem that a fever is ongoing, but if 48 hours pass between fevers, then the new fever is most likely from a new illness.

Common causes of fever include:

Teething does not cause a fever. If a baby is teething and has a fever, look for other symptoms that may need to be evaluated.

A fever that increases quickly may lead to a fever seizure in some children. After a fever has reached a high temperature, the risk of a seizure is less. Fever seizures can be frightening to see, but they usually do not cause other problems, such as brain damage, intellectual disability, or learning problems. If your child has a high fever and a seizure, see the topic Fever Seizures.

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to decide if and when your child should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Home Treatment

It can be hard to know whether you should call your doctor when your child has a fever, especially during the cold and flu season. The degree of the fever may not be related to the seriousness of the illness. The way your child looks and acts is a better guide than the thermometer. Most children will be less active when they have a fever.

If your child is comfortable and alert, eating well, drinking enough fluids, urinating normal amounts, and seems to be improving, home treatment without medicine is all that is needed for a fever. If you are not able to measure your child's temperature, look for other symptoms of illness and follow these home treatment measures.

  • Encourage your child to drink extra fluids or suck on Popsicles. Your child should be urinating at least every 6 to 8 hours.
  • Dress your child lightly, and do not wrap him or her in blankets. Dressing lightly will help your child's body cool down.

Keep your child comfortable

Lowering your child's temperature is important when the fever is causing discomfort. If your child is uncomfortable:

Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your child's fever or pain:

Talk to your child’s doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all labels on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Give, but do not exceed, the maximum recommended doses.
  • Do not give your child a medicine if he or she has had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless directed to do so by your child's doctor.
  • Do not give naproxen sodium (such as Aleve) to children younger than age 12 unless your child's doctor tells you to.
  • Try giving your child a sponge bath with lukewarm water. Do not use cold water, ice, or rubbing alcohol.
  • Encourage quiet activities.
  • Watch for signs of dehydration.

Symptoms to Watch For During Home Treatment

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to evaluate your child's symptoms if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Your child's temperature gets higher and he or she appears sicker than before.
  • You suspect your child has an extremely high fever.
  • Home treatment is not making your child feel better.
  • There is a significant decrease in your child's activity level or level of consciousness, or your child acts confused or struggles with you for no reason.
  • Signs of dehydration develop.
  • Pain develops or the pain becomes more severe.
  • Fever lasts longer than 72 hours.
  • Symptoms become more severe or frequent.

Prevention

The best way to prevent fevers is to reduce your child's exposure to infectious diseases. Hand-washing is the single most important prevention measure for people of all ages.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your child's doctor diagnose and treat your child's condition by providing the following information:

  • The history of the fever, including:
    • When did the fever start? Did it come on suddenly or increase over several hours?
    • Are you able to measure your child's temperature? How high is the fever?
    • Does the child have any other symptoms?
  • Does your child have frequent fevers?
    • How often does your child get a fever?
    • How long does the fever usually last?
  • Has your child had any other health problems during the past 3 months?
  • Has your child been eating, drinking, and playing normally?
  • Has anyone else in your family been ill?
  • Is your child in day care? If so, have any other children at the facility been ill?
  • Has your child recently traveled outside the country?
  • Has your child recently had close contact with immigrants or nonnative people?
  • Has your child had any animal or insect bites (including ticks) in the past 6 weeks?
  • Does your child have any health risks?

Credits

Author Jan Nissl, RN, BS
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Tracy Landauer
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Michael J. Sexton, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Thomas Emmett Francoeur, MDCM, CSPQ, FRCPC - Pediatrics
Last Updated April 21, 2009

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