Causes of fever in children and how to manage it
Most cases if mild fever can be easily managed and will resolve by themselves within a few days. However, it’s easy to worry when your child is distressed and uncomfortable.
Fevers are extremely common in children, with between 40-60% suffering a raised temperature each year. The body’s ‘normal’ temperature, is around 37°Celcius (C), however can vary according to the time of day and age of child.
If your child’s temperature is over 37.5°C when measured orally or 38°C when taken rectally, then they are considered to have a fever.
A fever is your body’s way of fighting back against infection and can often be a good sign. Generally, fevers happen when your child’s immune system is fighting infections such as colds, coughs and ear infections. At the first sign of attack, the body’s defenses launch infection-fighting chemicals into the blood. These chemicals also affect the body’s thermostat, which is located in the brain and called the hypothalamus.
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.
- Rectal. The thermometer is gently inserted into the rectum (child’s bottom) and a reading is taken.
- 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. A digital 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. It is important to remember that the temperature can vary according to the part of the body where it is measured, so always take the temperature at the same site.
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 digital thermometers are inserted into the ear and can only be used to take ear temperatures. They can be more expensive than other types of thermometer.
- 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 coloured 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, non-carbonated drinks, particularly water, to keep their fluid levels up. When a baby or child is breastfed or bottle fed, the most appropriate fluid is breast milk or formula. In addition, cooled pre-boiled water can also given to keep fluids up.
If they seem unwell or distressed then you can consider children’s pain relievers, such as paracetamol.
Other things that may help include:
- Dressing the child in light clothing
- Keeping the child cool by keeping the room temperature comfortable such as turning down the heat or opening windows. Take care not to make it too cold.
- Sponging with lukewarm water, which can help to reduce fever. Try not to use a cold sponge as this will have the opposite effect and can actually raise their temperature.
When to call a doctor
For many children, fever can be managed at home, but there are some children who may need to see a doctor. More information about warning signs of when to contact a doctor if your child has a fever can be found in Fever in Children: When to Call a Doctor.