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Fevers

What is a fever?

A fever is defined by most doctors as a rectal temperature of 100.4 degrees and higher or an oral temperature of 99.6 degrees or higher. 

The body has several ways to maintain normal body temperature. The organs involved in helping with temperature regulation include the brain, skin, muscle, and blood vessels. The body responds to changes in temperature by:

  • Increasing or decreasing sweat production.

  • Moving blood away from, or closer to, the surface of the skin.

  • Getting rid of, or holding on to, water in the body.

  • Seeking a cooler or warmer environment.

When your child has a fever, the body works the same way to control the temperature, but it has temporarily reset its thermostat at a higher temperature. The temperature increases for a number of reasons:

  • Chemicals, called cytokines and mediators, are produced in the body in response to an invasion from a microorganism, malignancy, or other intruder.

  • The body is making more macrophages, which are cells that go to combat when intruders are present in the body. These cells actually "eat-up" the invading organism.

  • The body is busily trying to produce natural antibodies, which fight infection. These antibodies will recognize the infection next time it tries to invade.

  • Many bacteria are enclosed in an overcoat-like membrane. When this membrane is disrupted or broken, the contents that escape can be toxic to the body and stimulate the brain to raise the temperature.

What conditions can cause a fever?

The following conditions can cause a fever:

  • Infectious diseases

  • Certain medications

  • Heat stroke

  • Blood transfusion

  • Disorders in the brain

  • Some kinds of cancer

  • Some autoimmune diseases

What are the benefits of a fever?

A fever actually helps the body destroy its microbial invader. It also stimulates an inflammatory response, which sends all kinds of substances to the area of infection to protect the area, prevent the spread of the invader, and start the healing process.

What are the symptoms that my child may have a fever?

Children with fevers may become more uncomfortable as the temperature rises. The following are the most common symptoms of a fever. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. In addition to a rectal body temperature greater than 100.4 (or an oral temperature of 99.6) degrees, symptoms may include:

  • Your child may not be as active or talkative as usual.

  • He or she may seem fussier, less hungry, and thirstier.

  • Your child may feel warm or hot. Remember that even if your child feels like he or she is "burning up," the actual rectal or oral temperature may not be that high.

The symptoms of a fever may resemble other medical conditions. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, if your child is younger than two months of age and has a rectal temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, you should call your pediatrician immediately. If you are unsure, always consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.

When should a fever be treated?

In children, a fever that is equal to or greater than 102.2 degrees should be treated. Children older than 2 months of age with a fever of 102 degrees or higher that does not respond to fever-reducing medication should be seen by a doctor. Children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years can develop seizures from a high fever (called febrile seizures). If your child does have a febrile seizure, there is a chance that the seizure may occur again, but, usually, children outgrow the febrile seizures. A febrile seizure does not mean your child has epilepsy.

If your child is very uncomfortable with a lower fever, treatment may be necessary. Treating your child's fever will not help the body get rid of the infection any quicker, it simply will relieve discomfort associated with fever.

What can I do to decrease my child's fever?

Specific treatment for a fever will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the condition

  • Your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

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