The Fear of Fever

When a child has a fever, it sends waves of anxiety and fear through many parents. Yes, fever is a sign or symptom of an underlying infection or something that is causing inflammation, but much of the fear is unnecessary. Unfortunately, there are a lot of misunderstandings and urban myths about fever that fuels the fear. I hope I can clarify some of them for you, and hopefully give you some peace of mind the next time your child has one.

First, lets clarify a few things about what a fever is. Many people think that fever is the illness. That is simply not the case. Fever is a symptom of an infection, not its cause. If someone becomes infected with a bacteria or virus, their body makes the fever
to help fight the infection. That’s right, fever helps people get well faster. Viruses and bacteria don’t grow as well in a hot environment. Fever causes the body to produce more interferon which is crucial for your body to fight viral infections. Also, white blood cells can migrate from the blood stream out to the site of infection easier during a fever.

But, you may think, when children have a fever they get glassy eyed, they breath fast and shallow, their heart races, and they just want to lay around like a lump on a log. That’s OK, it’s the way your body is designed to react to an infection. When sick, we should just lay around and let our body concentrate fully on fighting the infection. If we bring children’s fever down and they feel better, they play, they run around and look like they’re back to nearly normal. The problem is that the body is not able to focus on fighting the infection and often they wind up even sicker that night.

Another thing I hear parents worrying about is that the fever will keep going up and up if not treated and may reach a level where it can injure the brain. This is simply not the case. Yes, fevers can run pretty high, up to 105.5 from an illness. This is not high enough to damage the brain. People who take antipsychotic medications, people who have a genetic response to gas anesthesia, and people with heat stroke can get fevers up to 110 or 112. This is high enough to cause damage and is a medical emergency. The difference is that in those cases it is not the body that is making the fever naturally. The body id designed to not hurt itself and will only make a fever to fight an infection that it can handle.

Parents also get afraid because they hear about children having seizures with fever. This does, in fact, happen to about one in two hundred children. However, it has to do with the response of the child’s brain to fever and not the fever itself. More importantly to know, it has to do with how fast the fever goes up, not how high the fever is. Going quickly from 99F to 102F is as likely to cause a problem as going quickly from 101F to 104F. The other important thing to know is that a simple febrile seizure, although scary to see, will cause no lasting harm to the child.

If your child has a fever and is uncomfortable, it is fine to bring the fever down to a lower level for comfort. You can give acetominephen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin / Advil). Do not use aspirin in children under age 12. You can also give them a sponge bath with a washcloth dampened with leukwarm water. As the water evaporates it will cool them off. Keep your child lightly dressed so the heat can radiate off as well.

What should concern you about a fever is what else your child is doing. If he has a cough and runny nose, he probably just has a cold. If he has bad ear pain, or if he is to young to tell you and very fussy, it may be an ear infection. If they are having shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, it might be a pneumonia. If they are vomiting until they are getting dehydrated, that is a big problem. If they have a severe headache with neck stiffness or unconsolable crying in an infant, they may have meningitis which is very serious. If they have a fever with no obvious reason, especially in an infant or toddler, that could mean they have a hidden infection such as in the urinary tract. If worrisome symptoms develop, the child should be seen by a doctor quickly. If they seem fine when the fever is down, you can watch them at home and get them in to be seen during office hours.

I hope this clears some things up. If you have a question, be seen by your doctor or talk to their advice nurse. Just don’t panic!
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