Kid Care: Fever

Girl with thermometer in her mouth.

A fever is a natural reaction of the body to an illness, such as infections from a virus or bacteria. In most cases, the fever itself is not harmful. It actually helps the body fight infections. A fever does not need to be treated unless your child is uncomfortable and looks or acts sick. How your child looks and feels are often more important than the level of the fever.

If your child has a fever, check his or her temperature as needed. Do not use a glass thermometer that contains mercury. They can be dangerous if the glass breaks and the mercury spills out. A digital thermometer is a good alternative. The way you use it will depend on your child’s age. Ask your child’s healthcare provider for more information about how to use a thermometer on your child. General guidelines are:

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that for children less than 3 years, rectal temperatures are most accurate. Since infants must be immediately evaluated by a healthcare provider if they have a fever, accuracy is very important. 

  • For toddlers, take an axillary temperature (under the armpit).

  • For children old enough to hold a thermometer in the mouth (usually around 4 or 5 years of age), take an oral temperature (in the mouth).

  • For children 6 months and older, you can use an ear thermometer. This is also called a tympanic membrane thermometer.

  • A temporal artery thermometer may be used in babies and children of any age. This is a better way to screen for fever than an axillary (armpit) temperature.

Comfort care for fevers

If your child has a fever, here are some things you can do to help him or her feel better:

  • Give fluids to replace those lost through sweating with fever. Water is best, but low-sodium broths or soups, diluted fruit juice, or frozen juice bars can be used for older children. Talk with your healthcare provider about a plan. For an infant, breastmilk or formula is fine and all that is usually needed.

  • If your child has discomfort from the fever, check with your healthcare provider to see if you can use ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help reduce the fever. (Never give aspirin to a child under age 18. It could cause a rare but serious condition called Reye syndrome.) Generally, ibuprofen is not recommended for infants younger than 6 months. The correct dose for these medicines depends on your child’s weight. 

  • Make sure your child gets lots of rest.

  • Dress your child lightly and change clothes often if he or she sweats a lot. Use only enough covers on the bed for your child to be comfortable.

Facts about fevers

Fever facts include the following:

  • Exercise, eating, excitement, and hot or cold drinks can all affect your child’s temperature.

  • A child’s reaction to fever can vary. Your child may feel fine with a high fever, or feel miserable with a slight fever.

  • If your child is active and alert, and is eating and drinking, there is no need to give fever medicine.

  • Temperatures are naturally lower in the morning (4 to 8 a.m.) and higher in the early evening (4 to 6 p.m.).

When to call your child’s healthcare provider

Call the healthcare provider’s office if your otherwise healthy child has any of the signs or symptoms below:

  • A rectal temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher in an infant younger than 3 months

  • A temperature that rises to 104°F (40°C) or higher in a child of any age

  • A fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child younger than 2 years or for 3 days in a child 2 years or older

  • A seizure caused by the fever

  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath

  • A stiff neck or headache

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Signs of dehydration. These include severe thirst, dark yellow urine, infrequent urination, dull or sunken eyes, dry skin, and dry or cracked lips

  • Your child still doesn’t look right to you, even after taking a nonaspirin pain reliever


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