Fever in Children – What is normal and what to do when it is too high

Firstly, what is a fever?

Your child’s normal body temperature is anywhere from 36.5°C – 38°C, so if your child has a temperature higher than 38°C then this is known as a fever. If you have a newborn or baby younger than 3 months, a temperature of 37.5°C is considered high.

A fever is usually a sign that there is an infection in the body, and it is the body’s natural response system to fight the infection. Small children are particularly prone to infections that cause fevers in the first 5 years of life. Most children have up to 5-10 infections in a year, which may range from the common cold or an ear infection, to something more serious like influenza or pneumonia.

Why do we get a Fever?

A fever or a high temperature is common in children. The human body is normally pretty good at fighting off infection (particularly viruses). The infection (viral or bacterial) can only live in an environment (the body) that is at the right temperature. The body responds to the new intruder and as part of the ‘fight’ against an infection, and the body raises its temperature to try and kill the infection.

So, not all fevers are bad, and they actually play an important role in our health. However, they can make us feel pretty miserable sometimes.

How do I measure my child’s temperature? 

Many parents (especially experienced parents) will know simply by touching their child if they have a fever. If you want to measure it more accurately there are a variety of ways you can take your child’s temperature.

Each way is slightly different and this will affect the accuracy of the results.  

  • under the arm or under the tongue with a digital, mercury, or alcohol thermometer (most accurate)
  • infrared forehead thermometer
  • ear (tympanic) thermometer (for children over 6 months)
  • Stick on patches or plastic tape used on the forehead (these are not reliable).

Some thermometers are more suitable for particular age groups so you should always read and follow the manufacturer’s directions to get an accurate reading. 

What can I do to make my child comfortable at home?

Just because your child has a fever, they may not be that unwell. There are plenty of kids that run around with a fever as the body does ‘its thing’ while trying to kill off the infection. Others may be a little quieter than normal or some may be quite miserable and clingy. 

It’s important to treat the child rather than the fever. Only offer treatment (like paracetamol or ibuprofen) if they are miserable or in pain. It’s important to remember that paracetamol or ibuprofen do not fight the infection, and are only designed to relieve symptoms such as pain and fever.

If you have a breastfed baby under 6 months old, offer extra breastfeeds. If your baby is older, fluids (water or hydralyte) and rest are also essential when they are unwell with a fever.

Cool baths and showers are no longer recommended treatments for a fever, but a cool washer on their forehead is safe. 

Never give aspirin to children under 12 years of age, and do not give Ibuprofen to babies under 3months.  

 So when do I need to see the doctor?

If your child is under 3 months of age and has a fever, then you need to see your doctor, even if they have no other symptoms. Having a fever at that age is abnormal and it needs to be investigated promptly by a health professional.

See a doctor promptly if your child’s temperature is above 38°C and they have any of the following symptoms:

  • A stiff neck or light is hurting their eyes.
  • Looking very sick.
  • Vomiting and refusing to drink much.
  • A rash.
  • Won’t breast or bottle-feed.
  • More sleepy than usual or hard to wake up.
  • Working hard to breathe, or breathing much faster than normal.
  • Pain that doesn’t get better with pain relief medication.
  • Difficulty doing a wee.
  • Have had any fever for more than two days and there’s no obvious cause.
  • Seem to be getting more unwell.
  • Have had a febrile seizure (a fit while they have a fever). 

Family HQ’s Key Points: 

  • Fever is when your child has a temperature of over 38°C.
  • Fevers in children are common and are usually due to a viral illness.
  • If your baby is less than 3 months and has a fever, seek medical care promptly.
  • Treat the child, not the fever.
  • If you are worried about your child – take them to see a doctor. 
  • Keep your child well hydrated when they have a fever.

Check out our super helpful links at https://www.familyhq.com.au/resources/ for more trusted information. 

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