Nearly every child will develop a fever at some point, but it can be nerve-racking for parents. Fever occurs when the body temperature increases to a higher-than-normal level. Most doctors agree that a normal body temperature for a healthy child is around 37°C. Keep in mind that your child's temperature will vary slightly depending on his age, physical activity, time of day, or even from being overdressed. Infants usually have a higher body temperature than older children, and everyone's temperature elevates between late afternoon and lowers in the early morning. This is just a natural cycle of our internal thermostat.
If you think your child feels hotter than normal, take his temperature to confirm your suspicions. Your child's temperature may vary depending on how you take it– oral, underarm, ear, forehead, or rectal. For children younger than three years, the best and most accurate way is to use a rectal thermometer. So, if you have a rectal reading of above 38°C, an oral reading of above 37.5°C or an underarm reading of above 37.2°C, then your child has a fever.
Fever itself is not a disease. Instead, it is a sign or symptom of the disease. In fact, fever is a normal, healthy response of a body that is trying to fight an infection. When the body detects an infection or illness, the brain responds by raising the body temperature in order to make the body less hospitable to germs and it triggers the body's immune defense system to fight against invading viruses and bacteria. However, fever can make children uncomfortable. It increases their need for fluids and makes their heart rate and breathing rate faster.
When should I call the doctor if my toddler has a fever?
You should call a pediatrician right away if your child has a fever and:
- Pay attention to your child's behavior and appearance. If the fever doesn't affect his mood or reduces his appetite, there is no need to call the doctor unless the fever is very high or persists for more than 24 hours.
- If your child looks very ill and has symptoms such as loss of appetite, severe sore throat, a runny nose, cough, earache, is vomiting or has diarrhea.
- Shows signs of dehydration, such as a dry mouth or excreting less urine and is not able to take in fluids.
- If you notice an unexplained skin rash, which could signal a more serious problem when coupled with a fever.
- Has difficulty breathing, which could be a sign of bronchiolitis or pneumonia.
- Has had a seizure.
- Your child still "looks sick" even after the fever is brought down.
If your child's temperature is too high, he might be too uncomfortable to eat, drink, or sleep, making it more difficult for him to get better. Depending on how uncomfortable your child is, the doctor may suggest giving fever-reducing medicines, such as infant acetaminophen (or ibuprofen, for babies older than 6 months) to bring down the fever. The fever could persist until the body is clear of the infection (some infections can last not only 2-3 but up to 7 days). Fever-reducing medicine brings down body temperature temporarily, so it is important to diagnose the disease and treat the disease.
You should be very careful when administering medicine to your child. Most doctors don't recommend over-the-counter preparations for young children, so don't give your baby any medicine to reduce fever without a doctor's approval. His weight will determine the right dose, not his age. Don't give fever-reducing medicine more often than is recommended.
If the fever isn't affecting your child’s behavior, you don't need to give him anything to lower it. However, there are some things you can do to help your child feel better. First of all, make sure he gets enough fluids to avoid dehydration. Fluids such as milk, formula, soup, chamomile and water should be given frequently. Also, don’t overdress your child – dress him in lighter clothes and keep the environment comfortably cool.
Alternatively, you can try reducing your baby's temperature by giving him a lukewarm bath. As the water evaporates from the skin, it will bring the temperature down. Don't use cold water or rubbing alcohol against the skin. Besides other potential complications, it can cool your child too quickly, which will actually raise his temperature.
What should I do if my toddler has a seizure?
Fevers can sometimes trigger febrile seizures in babies and young children, especially between the ages of 6 months and 5 years. These seizures usually run in families, and tend to happen during the first few hours of a febrile illness when a child has a temperature higher than 38°C. If a child is having this type of seizure, he may roll his eyes, drool, or vomit, his limbs may become stiff and his body may twitch or jerk. These convulsions are almost always harmless, although they should be reported promptly to your pediatrician. The only thing you can do during a seizure is to place your child on his side away from hard objects so that he doesn’t inhale saliva or vomit and he doesn’t injure himself.