Fever In Children: When Should You Worry?

child has fever

Is there anything more sad than a sick child? Not likely. Runny noses, sore throats, and upset tummies are equally as miserable for kids as they are parents, but what really sends caregivers into a panic is the dreaded fever. Watching the numbers rise on a thermometer is terrifying for a parent, raising all sorts of questions about what to do and when.

So, when is a fever really a fever and when is it time to worry? Let's take a look and the basics and some of the solutions.

What the heck is a fever, really?

taking baby's temperature
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According to Dictionary.com, the true definition of a fever is an abnormally high body temperature, usually accompanied by shivering, headache, and in severe instances, delirium.

With the standard body temperature considered 98.6 F, it's easy to jump to conclusions that absolutely anything that clocks in above that is a fever. But, as the Mayo Clinic points out, not all bodies abide by that very specific guideline. What's "normal" for people varies, but using the 98.6 F guideline is a relatively good indicator. They also note that when you have a fever it's a way of your body signaling that there's something "out of the ordinary" going on inside, and that goes for children as well.

But while the Mayo Clinic says that fever in adults isn't necessarily a reason to worry until it hits 103 F, they warn that for infants and toddlers even a mild increase in temperature could offer signs that something is wrong, like an infection.

How should I take my child's temperature?

mom taking baby temperature
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Though it may make you, as a parent, squeamish, the Cleveland Clinic advises that the most accurate way to get your infant or toddler's temperature is with a rectal thermometer. For older children, an oral reading is more accurate assuming your kiddo will help the thermometer under their tongue with at least a modicum of patience. At the end of the day, use the device you're most comfortable with, and if doesn't include a rectal thermometer, that's okay, too.

Between the fancy-looking temporal artery scanners placed against the forehead to the classic oral thermometer, you just need something that is going to clue you in on where your child's temperature is heading. Temporal scanners can be big bucks, but less intrusive and often better tolerated by little ones.

My child has a fever, can I worry now?

The Cleveland Clinic says they consider it a fever if the temperature is 100.4 F or higher. If that's the case for your child, yes, feel free to be concerned, but try not to panic and follow this protocol:

If you're caring for an infant 3 months or younger with a temperature of 100.4 F or higher, it's time to call the pediatrician.

This changes slightly for babies aged 3 to 6 months, when a call to the doctor is recommended if the fever registers at 102 F or higher. Also, the Mayo Clinic suggests taking note if your little one is showing signs of irritability, lethargy, or discomfort.

When looking after a child ages 6 months to 24 months, 102 F is still the magic number to look out for, but this time Mayo Clinic suggests holding off on calling the doctor until the fever has lasted longer than one day. However, if there are other symptoms involved like cold, cough, or diarrhea, it may be in your best interest to give the good doctor a ring sooner than that.

For older children, fever is less cause for alarm unless it lasts for three or more days. If they're making eye contact, responding to your voice, drinking fluids, and seemingly acting like themselves, they're likely to push through the fever without seeing a doctor. But the Mayo Clinic does note that you'll want to give the office a call if they appear listless, are vomiting, or have a fever due to being left in a hot car.

Inevitably you have to listen to your instincts and should never feel ashamed about contacting your pediatrician with medical concerns. It's always better to be safe than sorry, these are simply guidelines set forth by a medical groups.

Here's when you can likely breathe a little easier:

child at the doctor with mom
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Not every spike in your child's temperature is reason to freak out, though that isn't exactly comforting to new or anxious parents.

Take, for example, when your little one receives immunizations. A doctor or nurse is likely to remind you of this, but occasionally these shots can cause a low-grade fever. The Cleveland Clinic points out that these can be normal assuming they don't last more than 48 hours.

Although the number may look mighty high, a temperature of up to 102.5 in kiddos between 3 months and 3 years may not be reason to worry. This can be more common than you think.

For older children, assuming they're acting like themselves and able to eat and drink normally, a fever isn't typically a major concern unless it lasts for more than five days.

The takeaway:

child sick
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As a parent, no one knows your child better than you do. If something doesn't seem standard in your kid's behavior or routine, regardless of how high or low their temperature may be, say something. We choose pediatricians and doctors specifically to answer questions and provide support when health concerns like these arise. While experts can advise on when and when not to worry, ultimately it's all about you trusting your gut and following through as you see fit.

Of course, guidelines for newborns and infants are going to be more specific, as their little bodies are growing by leaps and bounds every single day, with their immune systems also developing.

Remember, it truly takes a village to raise a child, and there are healthcare professionals who are ready and willing to help. If your pediatrician is unable to diagnose your child, there is surely a specialist who can step in to address the issue, from a pediatric infectious disease expert to a pediatric rheumatologist and beyond.

You're not alone, this too shall pass, and know that you're doing everything you can to bring your kiddo back to 100% health.

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