Fever is incredibly common in children. Having an understanding of why children (and adults) can develop a fever is important. There are many myths about fever, the number one being that a fever is the actual illness.
Fever is not the illness, it is the body’s natural response when we get an infection (eg. a virus or bacteria). Our bodies are incredibly smart. Many viruses and bacteria cannot survive in a ‘hot’ environment, so our immune system ‘resets’ the thermostat in our brain.
When a child is well, their brain keeps their temperature around 36.5-37.5 degrees celsius. When a child has an infection, the brain resets that thermostat – usually above 38 degrees celsius – to kill the virus or bacteria causing the infection. Fever is generally defined as a temperature above 38 degrees celsius. And it is safe.
Many people believe that a child can get brain damage if the fever is too high. The fever itself cannot cause brain damage. Hyperthermia, which is when we overheat from a heat source externally (such as a child left in a car on a hot day) can absolutely cause damage to the brain and other organs, even resulting in death.
So, if fever is a natural response, why do we worry about it?
We need to remember that fever is a symptom. We want to find out what is causing the fever, and we need to look at our child as a whole, not just the temperature. If it is something obvious, a runny nose and sore throat for example, and your child is drinking well, has good wet nappies, and is interested and interactive, we probably don’t need to be too concerned. Keep a close eye on them and seek medical help if you are worried.
However, if your child is lethargic, not drinking as much as usual, less wet nappies than usual, miserable, floppy, your baby is under the age of 3 months (even with no other symptoms, just a fever) or you are just concerned (always trust your instincts), you need to seek medical help.
If fever is the body’s normal response, do you need to treat it? The answer is only if your child feels miserable. You don’t need to routinely give paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce your child’s temperature, only give it for comfort if needed. Always follow the directions on the packaging and be aware that your child’s fever may not go away even though you have given medicine – not all fevers respond to paracetamol or ibuprofen. That is ok!
So the next time your little ones surprise you with a fever, remember to look at your child, not just the number on the thermometer. Read the Sydney Children’s Hospital Network fact sheet for more information