How to know if a fever is something worse

How to know if a fever is something worse

By: Dr. Lyndsey Garbi, Pediatrician, and Mollie Lobl

Posted March 13th, 2018

What is a fever?

A fever is an abnormal increase in body temperature to 100.4 F or above. 

Fevers in children can be very scary for parents, but they are a sign of a healthy body fighting an infection. It is rarely dangerous and cannot cause any damage to the brain.

 

What Causes a Fever?

Most of the time, fevers are caused by viruses and will resolve on their own without antibiotics! It's likely a virus if your child has a runny nose, cough, congestion, or even a sore throat along with the fever. Usually, you'll know a close contact with similar symptoms, such as a sibling or classmate. Sometimes it is caused by a bacterial infection, such as streptococcus, which you may know as "strep throat."

 

An important point to note for young babies: they have immature immune systems. You should always speak with your pediatrician if your infant is under three months and has a temperature at or above 100.4F. 

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How can I know if I should run to the emergency room versus call my pediatrician versus handle it on my own?

This is the million dollar question. Take a look at the points below for a good rule-of-thumb on how to tell whether the fever is something worse:

 

Your child should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible if: 

  • They have difficulty breathing. 

  • They are not able to touch their chin to their chest.
  • Their neck is stiff.
  • They have unexplained excessive crying or irritability.
  • The have excessive drooling.
  • They have a severe headache.
  • They have severe belly pain that doesn't go away.
  • You start to see purple spots on the skin.
  • They are not able to drink anything or keep fluids down despite drinking them.
  • They are turning blue.

  • They are not responsive or not waking up.

You should speak to a doctor if your child:

  • Is vomiting for more than one day.

  • Has diarrhea for more than 3 days or is worsening over the first 2 days.
  • Is not urinating as frequently as usual.
  • Has pain with urination or bloody urine.
  • Is less alert and active than usual.
  • Has another specific complaint, such as ear pain.

Should I give my child medication at home?

If it's been determined that the cause of the high temperature is a virus and it doesn't require antibiotics, then the next question to ask yourself is "how does my child look"? If they are cranky or uncomfortable and you think they would benefit from a fever-reducing medicine, then go ahead and treat. Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or Acetaminophen (Tylenol) are the typical medicines to use, just be sure that you are giving the correct dose based on your child's weight. Remember, the peak of a fever may not be the time they are most cranky. Even if they have a high temperature, children do not necessarily need the medication if they do not appear to be sick.

Look at your child, not at the thermometer.

No one knows your child better than you do – once you've been through a fever once or twice, you'll get the hang of it. For the most part, children’s bodies are resilient, and a fever just indicates that they are busy fighting an infection that will pass in a few days. Drinking lots of fluids and resting will be important. And doctor's orders: no matter how old your child is, extra snuggles are a must!

 

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More advice from our pediatricians:

Lyndsey Garbi