When you see your child suffering with a fever it’s only natural to consider that it’s a bad thing. The abnormally high temperature, sweating and shivering, headaches, crying and loss of appetite - the symptoms can be alarming. In truth though, in the vast majority of cases, fevers are harmless; in fact they help. They’re a good thing.
To begin thinking about fever in a more positive way, it’s important to understand at the outset that fever is actually not in itself an illness, and very seldom dangerous. It’s a symptom of an underlying condition. In most cases it’s simply the body’s way of fighting against an infection such as a cold, flu, ear infection or gastroenteritis.
A normal fever of 38º to 40ºC (100.4º to 104ºF) is then a defensive reaction that is protecting the body in many ways:
- It is increasing core body temperature to a level that makes it much harder for invading viruses and bacteria to live and grow.
- It kick-starts the immune system into producing more white blood cells that work to protect the body against harmful microorganisms.
But shouldn’t I still help treat the fever?
In spite of the facts above, due to a mix of human instinct and long-established belief, it’s still the case that a high percentage of parents and carers are quick to reach for paracetamol and antipyretic (fever reducing) medicines like ibuprofen to help their child through a fever.
Many experts, however, believe that this treatment is unnecessary and unwise, particularly for infants and babies due to medicine’s potentially adverse effects. They recognise the benefits of letting a fever run its natural course in order to minimise the severity and time span of colds and flu for example.
They recommend instead a supportive care approach as a better means of treating a fever, maximising your child’s comfort level to help get through the fever quicker. Some general tips are provided in our article, ‘How to treat a fever in children.’
Fevers generally don’t actually cause most children any real discomfort until temperature rises above 39º or 39.5ºC (102º or 103ºF) and treating a fever with medicines will only ever reduce it by 1º or 1.5ºC (2º or 3ºF). It will not, and usually should not, attain a normal temperature.
But what about the risk of long term harm?
It's a common misconception that fever can cause serious consequences, such as febrile seizures and brain damage. Again, both fears are unfounded, and the facts present a far more positive picture than the common myths.
Characterised by short convulsions and a momentary loss of consciousness, febrile seizures can occur in children with fevers above 39.5ºC (103ºF ). However, they are only experienced by 4% of children, and while very scary to witness, they don’t cause any permanent harm. Whether or not the seizures are caused by the temperature or the other way around is still a debate in medicine.
For brain damage to occur, body temperature needs to exceed 42ºC (108ºF) for a sustained period of time and since the brain’s body temperature regulation mechanism (the hypothalamus) stops infection-related fevers from getting higher than 41.1ºC (106ºF), normal fevers simply can’t cause brain damage, with very rare exceptions
Body temperature above 42.5°C (108ºF) is exceedingly rare as caused by disease and is usually only seen in the cases of heat stroke, caused by extreme air temperatures, poisoning or nervous system disorders.
It’s a good thing
So, if you accept that a fever is the body’s natural way of dealing with your child’s infection, that it’s a symptom and not an illness, then it certainly can be viewed as a good thing. It’s on your side, and supportive care, rather than treatment aimed at lowering the fever, is generally all that’s needed to help your little ones through the worst.
In any case though, it’s important to monitor and keep track of your child’s fever as it develops. Its highs and lows and development over time can be crucial input that your family doctor can use to make a proper diagnosis. This ‘fever curve’ will help substantiate whether the fever is natural, running its course, or if something more serious is going on.
Seek medical advice
With the right basic treatment at home, fevers should pass within a few days. However, you must always contact a healthcare professional if:
- Your baby is under 3 months old and has a temperature of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or above.
- Your baby is 3 to 6 months old and has a temperature of 102.2ºF (39ºC) or above.
- Your child’s health appears to worsen, and other signs of upset and illness emerge such as a rash, difficulty breathing, diarrhea or vomiting.