What is a fever?
A fever is a high temperature. Normal body temperature may vary quite considerably according to the age of the child and the time of day but may be up to 38°C. Anything above 38°C is considered a fever.
All children will have a fever at some time. It is one of the most common reasons for children to see a doctor and often causes parents to worry. However, it is extremely rare for a fever to cause long term harm.
What causes fever in children?
More than 90 per cent of fevers in children are caused by viral infections which cannot be treated with antibiotics. Bacterial infections also cause fever.
The degree of the temperature and response to medicine (e.g. paracetamol, ibuprofen) do not help to tell the difference between viral or bacterial infections. Your doctor may perform some tests to look for the bacteria or viruses causing the fever.
Can a fever cause problems?
A fever itself does not hurt a child—it just shows that the child’s immune system (defence) is fighting an infection. In many instances the fever is probably helpful and may shorten the duration of the illness.
There is no need to give paracetamol or ibuprofen regularly to control a fever.
Around one in 30 children (usually in children aged less than 6 years) will have a seizure with a fever (called a febrile convulsion). Febrile convulsions are scary for parents but are usually brief and do no harm.
Signs and symptoms
- A high temperature (above 38°C)
- Feeling miserable and/or uncomfortable
- Loss of body fluid more quickly than usual
When should you seek medical help?
You should see a doctor if your child:
- is less than three months of age
- looks very sick, is poorly responsive, is uninterested in his or her surroundings, is very sluggish, and/or won’t feed from the breast or bottle
- cries constantly
- is difficult to wake up
- has a stiff neck
- has purple spots on their skin
- is working hard to breathe
- is drooling excessively or having difficulty swallowing
- has an earache or sore throat
- has a limp or will not use an arm or leg
- has severe abdominal pain
- is having painful urination or difficulty urinating
- has any redness or swelling on his or her body
- has a seizure (fit, convulsion).
Parents and carers know their children best, so if you are concerned about your child, you should contact your doctor or visit your local hospital as soon as possible.
Care at home
Remember fever is rarely harmful so it is best to treat the discomfort rather than the fever itself.
- Ensure your child drinks plenty of fluid.
- Avoid overdressing your child.
- Avoid sponging and cold baths – these can make your child shiver.
If your child is uncomfortable and irritable (with or without a temperature), you can give them children’s paracetamol (Panadol, Dymadon), or children’s ibuprofen (Nurofen) in the recommended doses.
If your child has been seen by a doctor and you have any concerns about their health before your next appointment, visit your doctor sooner.
Key points to remember
- Fever is common in children and is usually caused by viral infections.
- Fever itself rarely causes harm and can help fight an infection.
- Children with fever need to take in more fluid than usual.
- Paracetamol or ibuprofen may help to make your child feel better when they are unwell with a high fever.
- See a doctor if you are concerned about your child or you notice any of the signs mentioned in this fact sheet.
In an emergency, always call 000 immediately. Otherwise, contact your local doctor or visit the emergency department of your nearest hospital. For non-urgent medical advice, call 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84) to speak to a registered nurse, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the cost of a local call.
See the Febrile Convulsions Factsheet on the Children’s Health Queensland website (www.childrens.health.qld.gov.au/fact-sheet-febrile-convulsions)