Fever in children – what you should know

fever in children

When children suddenly develop a high fever, it is alarming for parents.

What does this mean, and what action should you take?

What does an increased temperature mean?

An increase in body temperature is not an illness in itself – it simply means that the body’s immune system is fighting an infection. As many bacteria and viruses cannot survive high temperatures, it’s the body’s way of killing these invaders in both children and adults.

Possible causes of fever

Most fevers are caused by viral infections such as colds and childhood diseases, such as measles. Bacterial infections (such as ear infections and bladder infections) are responsible for much of the rest. Sometimes a fever can be the result of a reaction to medication.

Babies vs toddlers

The first signs of a fever are often flushed cheeks and skin that is hot to the touch. Children can appear listless or exceptionally fussy. The child’s age and medical history play a big role in helping you decide what you should do.

Parents should also know that there are differences between babies and toddlers with regards to high fevers.  In babies who are younger than three months, even a slight temperature, such as 38 degrees Celsius, warrants action. Such young babies have a higher risk of serious bacterial infections than older kids.

In children between the ages of four months and two years, temperatures over 38.9 degrees Celsius are cause for concern. Normal body temperature is 37.5 degrees Celsius.

When to take action

If your child is still doing the things he or she normally does, and has a normal appetite, the infection which is causing the fever is probably mild. But look out for a toddler who is unusually sleepy, has a rash, a seizure, or breathing problems.

A fever fit is a seizure that is triggered by a fever – often in otherwise healthy children. Although these are frightening to see, they are mostly harmless. If it happens repeatedly, or lasts longer than 15 minutes, medical attention is definitely advised.

Good to know

To treat a mild fever at home, you can remove any warm clothing from the child, use a lukewarm sponge to wipe the child down, or put the child in a tepid bath. Make sure that your child stays well hydrated by giving it plenty of fluids.

Speak to your doctor or pharmacist before giving the child any medication – they often recommend paracetamol. Follow dosage instructions to the letter. Do not give your child aspirin, as it is linked with a condition called Reye syndrome.  Reye syndrome is a rare but serious condition that causes swelling in the liver and brain. It most often affects children and teenagers recovering from a viral infection, most commonly the flu or chickenpox.


By Susan Erasmus

(Sources: American Academy of Paediatrics; National Institutes of Health; Stanford Children’s Health)

The Content on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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