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My child has a high temperature. Should I worry?It's hard not to worry when your child is crying and her temperature is soaring, but fever rarely does harm. A fever is simply the elevation of the body's temperature above normal and is part of your child's defence against infection.
Fevers are usually not dangerous in toddlers and preschoolers, but there are a small number of children who do get very poorly very quickly. Fever is more serious in a young baby. It is relatively unusual for young babies to develop a fever so this can be a warning sign that something is wrong. Read our article on fever in babies for more information.
Your instinct that your child has a fever or is unwell is just as reliable as measuring her temperature, although it can be useful to use a thermometer to know what is normal for your child (NICE 2007).
Why do people get fevers?Fever is part of the body's way of fighting infection. Macrophages, the "clean-up" cells of the body, are constantly on patrol. When they find something that doesn't belong - such as a virus, bacterium or fungus - they mop up as much as they can. At the same time, they call for help, signalling to the brain to raise the body's temperature. The heat kills some types of bacteria directly. It also seems to speed up the body's production of white blood cells and chemicals that kill germs.
Young children often get fevers after receiving immunisations. Your GP or practice nurse will give you advice on what to look out for following immunisations. Children get feverish for lots of reasons and usually the cause is unknown. It's a normal part of growing up! Common reasons for feverish illness include:
- sore throats
- ear infections
- respiratory illness (like pneumonia)
- viral illnesses
- urinary tract infections
Your child will usually get better by herself and she is best cared for at home.
How can I tell if my child's fever is serious?If you are at all worried then get advice. You should be more cautious with a young baby (under six months) as feverish illness is quite unusual and could be more serious. Remember that children often get ill quickly, but they also recover quickly.
What is a febrile convulsion?Febrile convulsions are fits that sometimes happen in young children with a high temperature. They are frightening to watch, but rarely harm a child. Although they may seem to last forever, these seizures usually continue for only 20 seconds, and rarely more than two minutes. Seek medical advice immediately. If the fit lasts for more than four minutes, call 999 for an ambulance (NHS Direct 2008).
While she's having the seizure, don't restrain your child in any way. Just loosen any tight clothing and remove anything in her mouth, such as a dummy or food. (She won't swallow her tongue.)
How do I detect a fever?You will usually be able to tell if your child has a fever just by touching her brow. If you want to you can use a thermometer to give you more idea about her temperature. Normal body temperature is usually between 36 degrees C and 37 degrees C but this can vary by a few points of a degree from child to child. A fever is anything that is high for your child.
You don't need to buy an expensive thermometer; most are easy to use and have clear instructions. Digital underarm thermometers are reasonably accurate and beep when they are ready. Ear thermometers can be accurate but can also be expensive and difficult to use correctly. Forehead strips are less accurate but can be useful as they are quick and easy to use.
What can I do to treat my child's fever?You don't need to treat a fever unless your child is very uncomfortable. To help your child feel more comfortable you can:
- Offer your child lots of drinks to make sure she is well hydrated. You can offer water, diluted fruit juices, soup and ice lollies. Even food like grapes or cucumber will help keep her hydrated, though do make sure to halve the grapes as small round foods can easily present a choking risk.
- Let her rest if she wants to. She doesn't need to stay in bed.
- Let her eat if she feels like it. She will need energy and plenty of fluids to help her get better.
- You don't need to take off layers of your child's clothes, or add extra clothing (NICE 2007).
- You might want to offer your child infant paracetamol suspension or ibuprofen if she seems very uncomfortable or upset. Follow the directions on the packet. Don't give both at the same time, but if you have offered one and it hasn't helped, you could think about giving the other one instead (NICE 2007). Never exceed the stated dose.
If you are worried, or if she seems to be getting worse, then get advice from your doctor.
Last reviewed: December 2008
NHS Direct. 2008. How can I tell if my baby is ill? nhsdirect.nhs.uk [Accessed September 2008]
NHS Direct. 2008. What temperature is a fever in children? nhsdirect.nhs.uk [Accessed September 2008]
NICE. 2007. Fever in children younger than five years. National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence. NICE Clinical Guideline 47. London: NICE. nice.org.uk [Accessed September 2008]