For many parents, fever can be a real worry. Not only is it a sign that something may be wrong, but your child may also be distressed and uncomfortable – and every parent wants to make their child feel well. Fortunately, most fevers are usually mild and can be easily managed.
Fevers are extremely common in children, with between 20-40% suffering a raised temperature each year. We each have our own internal ‘thermostat’, which keeps our normal temperature at around 37°C, plus or minus around half a degree Celsius (C).
If your child’s temperature is over 37.5°Celcius, or 38°C when taken rectally, then they are generally considered to have a fever.
If your child has a fever, it might be hard to believe, but it’s often a good sign. Generally, fevers happen when your child is fighting an infection, such as a cold, a cough or an ear infection. The fever develops as the body’s defenses fight back against the infection, causing infection-fighting chemicals to be released into the blood. These chemicals also affect the body’s temperature-regulating centre in the brain.
While this is a positive thing, the downside of fever is that your child may feel uncomfortable and distressed.
There are a number of different ways you can check if your child has a fever:
- Oral. The thermometer is inserted under the tongue, the mouth is closed and a reading is taken. (Not recommended for routine use in children under 5 years).
- Rectal. The thermometer is gently inserted into the rectum (child’s bottom) and a reading is taken. (Not recommended for routine use in children under 5 years).
- Armpit. The thermometer is placed under the armpit and the arm is held against the side of the body while a reading is taken.
- Ear. The ear (or tympanic) thermometer is inserted into the ear and a reading is taken.
Always ensure that you read the instructions provided with the thermometer before you use it.
There are different types of thermometer you can use:
- Digital. These thermometers are quick and accurate and can be used for taking temperatures orally, rectally and under the armpit.
- Ear. These tympanic thermometers are inserted into the ear and can only be used to take temperatures via the ear. Note they can give a low reading if they are not used correctly.
- Strip. These are placed against your child’s forehead, and show the temperature of the skin, but not the body. They are not very accurate.
- Glass. There are two types of glass thermometer; those that contain a colored alcohol to measure the temperature, or the more old-fashioned type which contain mercury. The use of mercury glass thermometers is not recommended, as mercury can be highly poisonous.
If your child has a fever, but is fine in every other way, then you may not need to do anything, aside from making sure they have plenty of cool, clear drinks (such as water) to keep their fluid levels up. When a baby or child is breastfed, the most appropriate fluid is breast milk.
If they seem unwell or distressed then you can consider children’s fever relief, such as paracetamol (from 1 month of age) or ibuprofen (from 3 months of age).
Other things that may help include:
- Removing some clothing to help cool your child down. Dress them in enough clothing so they are comfortable and are not shivering.
- Keeping the room temperature comfortable.
- Tepid sponging or fanning is generally not recommended.
When to call a doctor
For most children, fever is a mild problem, but there are some children who may need to see a doctor, such as babies under 3 months.
Although it can be distressing to see your child unwell and uncomfortable with a fever, in most cases it’s a mild problem that they’ll shortly recover from. In the meantime, consider the tips above designed to help make your child more comfortable.