Fever in children usually shows their body is fighting a minor virus. A paediatrician explains when a fever might be more serious, and what to do.
Fever is very common in young children – according to the NHS, more than 60% of parents with children aged between six months and five years say their child has had one. But that doesn’t make it any less worrying when your child is burning up.
Fever is usually caused by a minor viral infection, such as a cough, cold or a tummy upset, and can normally be treated at home without the need to see a doctor, as most children recover with no problems after a few days.
However, as having a high temperature can also be a sign of something more serious but a lot rarer, such as meningitis, sepsis or pneumonia, it’s understandable that fever in children can really worry parents.
Here, paediatrician Dr Sunil Bhopal of the Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health (RCPCH) explains what parents need to know about fevers in children:
What constitutes a fever?
While there’s no single agreed upper limit for normal temperature, Dr Bhopal says: “A fever in children is a temperature greater than 37.5 degrees. You can check your child’s temperature using a thermometer which you can buy from the pharmacy, supermarkets and so on.”
The NHS says forehead thermometers shouldn’t be used as they can give inaccurate results.
When should you take a child with a fever to the doctor?
Most fever in children is caused by normal day-to-day viruses and should be treated at home, stresses Dr Bhopal. He says the key indicator that separates a serious illness from a minor problem is that your child will look much sicker – they will be drowsy, may be breathing very rapidly, may have a pale or blue skin colour, or may be becoming dehydrated.
“The difficulty is that a fever can also be a sign of serious illness,” he says, “so follow your instincts – if your child is drowsy, is inconsolable, seems dehydrated or you’re worried for any other reason, it’s time to seek help.”
This can usually be at your GP practice, through a walk-in-centre, or you can call 111.
How should you treat a fever at home?
Dr Bhopal says you can use paracetamol and ibuprofen to bring down a fever in children – use a syringe so you know you’re giving the right amount. But never use aspirin in children as it can cause serious illness.
The NHS says parents should encourage feverish children to drink plenty of fluids, and only offer food if they seem to want it (feverish children will often lose their appetite). There’s no need to sponge them down with tepid water, as research shows this doesn’t help reduce fever.
Are there any ‘rules’ with regards to children and fevers, or is every child different?
The key is that fever in babies under three months is something to seek medical advice for, says Dr Bhopal. In three- to six-month-old children, always seek advice for a temperature greater than 38 degrees.
He says vaccinations are key to preventing serious illness, so make sure your child has had all the jabs offered in the childhood immunisation schedule, and he adds: “Most children with fever don’t need antibiotics because the bugs that are causing fevers are viruses and antibiotics only work on bacteria.”