When To Let Your Child’s Fever Run Its Course And When To See A Doctor

Something that often causes concerned parents to call their child’s pediatrician is when their child has a fever. They want to know if they should simply make their child comfortable, give fluids and wait it out, or whether it’s a sign of something serious and they should take their child to the doctor right away. Here’s how to know.

According to Dr. Cutler of Westchester Health, a fever is the body’s normal immune response to bacteria and viruses.
According to Dr. Cutler of Westchester Health, a fever is the body’s normal immune response to bacteria and viruses. Photo Credit: Westchester Health

A fever is the body’s normal immune response to bacteria and viruses

The more the body temperature rises, the harder it is for germs to survive. Also, a fever stimulates the immune system into producing more white blood cells, antibodies and the protein interferon, all of which work to protect your child against harmful microorganisms.

Before you reach for the Tylenol…

Too often, parents give their child fever-reducing medications like Tylenol or Motrin when there is an above-normal temperature. But unless your pediatrician has specifically recommended medication, it’s actually better to hold off and give your child’s fever a chance to do its job.

So when should you give a fever-reducer?

  • For an infant under 3 months old: A rectal temperature of 100.4 F or above is cause for serious concern. Go to an emergency room or pediatrician’s office immediately.
  • For babies 3 months to 1 year old: For a temperature of 100.4 F or above, call your pediatrician.
  • For children over a year old: Temperatures between 100.4 F and 104 F probably signify a cold or virus.
  • BE AWARE: Brain damage occurs at 108 F and above.

Four reasons you should let a fever run its course

1. Fever-reducing medicine masks symptoms. When children are feverish, they usually lie around, eat very little and take frequent naps. When you give medication, they feel better and become more active, when they should really rest and give their body a chance to fight the virus.

2. All medication has side effects. Children’s pain and fever medications—whether in liquid or chewable form—are full of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives, ingredients that should be avoided.

3. Fever helps the body heal. Evidence shows that fever is beneficial to the healing process. It triggers the immune system and prevents viruses and bacteria from replicating.

4. Fever reducers contribute to the spread of flu. Parents often end up doing more harm than good by giving their child medication to bring down a fever, then taking their still highly contagious child out in public where they can infect others.

When a fever should NOT be ignored

There are definitely times when a fever, especially in combination with other symptoms, warrants a trip to your pediatrician. These include:

  • A rectal temperature of 100.4 F or higher in an infant less than 6 weeks old
  • A fever that lasts more than 5 days
  • High fever accompanied by lethargy, unresponsiveness
  • High fever accompanied by any of the symptoms of meningitis: an unusual skin rash, severe headache, aversion to light, confusion, stiff or painful neck.
  • Constant, inconsolable crying

Do not “starve a fever”

The old adage that says “feed a cold, starve a fever” is actually wrong. You should feed both, if your child feels like eating. The main thing is to try to make your child comfortable while the fever runs its course.