In urgent care, kids with fevers are among our most common patients. Parents often worry that a fever is dangerous, sometimes even wondering if it could cause brain damage. They may also think that a high fever must mean their child is seriously ill. But while a fever is usually a sign that something is going on, it’s rarely dangerous or even a sign of a severe illness.
A fever — usually defined as a rectal temperature at or above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) — can be the brain’s way of helping the body fight an infection, because our immune systems work better at higher temperatures. The most common cause is a viral infection, during which a fever might develop and then go away in two or three days. A fever may also be a sign of a bacterial infection, such as an ear infection or strep throat. In rare cases, a fever can be a sign of an inflammatory or other serious medical condition.
Medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen help “trick” the brain into temporarily lowering the fever, and can help make kids feel more comfortable. Don’t be surprised, however, if the fever returns after these medications wear off.
Although it’s a sign of illness, a fever itself is almost never dangerous. Fevers that occur during an infection don’t cause brain damage. (Remember, the brain is creating the fever on purpose to help the body fight infection!) A small percentage of young children (3-5 percent) could develop febrile seizures, which tend to run in families. While this may look scary, it does not cause brain damage or increase the risk of a child developing epilepsy. It is more important to watch how your child is feeling and acting than it is to worry about his or her fever.
There are a few exceptions. Dangerously high fevers (over 106 degrees Fahrenheit) can be caused by external heat exposure, such as being left in a hot car. They also can occur when a child has an underlying brain injury or tumor, causing the brain to function abnormally.
If your child has a fever and is happy, playful, and appears comfortable, most times it’s best not to treat the fever. Pediatricians usually recommend treating a fever only when it is causing your child to be uncomfortable.
Here are some ways to care for a child with a fever:
Pediatricians usually recommend treating a fever only when it is causing children to be uncomfortable, so if your child is still happy, playful, and appears to be acting otherwise normally, it’s usually best to just let the fever run its course.
Most children with a fever for less than two or three days can be treated at home if they are otherwise feeling well. You should call your child’s pediatrician’s office if you have any questions or concerns, or if your child:
If you are unsure of what to do or worried about your child, call your pediatrician’s office. They will give you advice on home treatment and let you know if or when your child should be seen. If your doctor’s office is closed, you may be directed to urgent care, or even the emergency department. Those of us at urgent care are always happy to help make sure your child is well and give plenty of advice on how to keep your child comfortable.