I think my child has a fever - should I be worried?
Fevers can be worrisome. As parents, we’re often on high alert the moment our children show the slightest hint of a high temperature. Could it be the flu? A cold? Chickenpox?!
Aside from worrying about our child getting sick and whether or not they should take the day off school tomorrow, there’s another reason our parental radars go on high alert: we wonder whether our child’s temperature is too high (and what that could mean).
At very high temperatures (40℃ or more), a child is more likely to have a serious infection (though most won’t)1, so it is important to keep track of your child’s temperature. But at what point should you start to worry?
What is a fever in babies and children?
Let’s begin by understanding why kids have fevers in the first place. A fever is the body’s natural response to fighting infections like coughs and colds. Normal temperature in babies and children is about 36.4℃ (though this can vary between children)2. It is classified as a fever when that temperature climbs to 38℃ or higher (in children under 5)3.
High temperatures are common in young children. Over 60% of parents with children aged between six months and five years say their child has had a high temperature3. The temperature usually returns to normal within 3 to 4 days2.
Many parents first notice their child’s high temperature when they touch their child’s forehead, back or tummy. These areas may feel hotter than usual. The child may also feel sweaty or clammy and have red cheeks2.
If your child feels hotter than usual and you believe your child may have a fever, there’s a good chance your instincts are spot on–a study showed that mothers who predicted that their child had a fever by touching their skin were very often correct4.
But you shouldn’t rely on this to work out if your child has a fever. It’s important that you use a thermometer (such as a digital or smart thermometer *) to accurately take, and track, your child’s temperature.
Should you be worried about your child’s fever?
Let’s say your child has a temperature above 38℃. Does that mean you should automatically rush to the doctor? If you are ever concerned about your child’s health, then certainly do. You know your child best.
But some children may seem very ill at a lower temperature, while others may have a higher temperature and seem perfectly well5. If your child has a fever, it’s important to focus on making your child comfortable, keeping them well-hydrated and remaining aware of signs of serious illness. If your child does have a fever and is distressed or feeling unwell, you can use paracetamol or ibuprofen ** (as appropriate for your child’s age and weight) which may help them feel better6. Many parents also like the peace of mind that comes with being able to monitor their child’s temperature constantly.
Sometimes, your child’s high temperature may indicate something more serious. At that point, you should be calling your doctor.
When to see a doctor
Though fevers often go away on their own within a few days 2 , be on the lookout for any of the following signs or symptoms which may indicate a more serious cause of fever. Call your doctor for an urgent appointment (or NHS 111 if you can’t get through to your doctor) if your child2:
● is under three months old and has a temperature of 38℃ or higher, or is 3 to 6 months old and has a temperature of 39℃ or higher (or you think they have a fever)
● has a high temperature that's lasted longer than five days
● has a high temperature, as well as other signs of illness such as a rash
● has a high temperature that doesn't come down with paracetamol or ibuprofen **
● doesn't want to eat, or isn't their usual self and you're worried
● shows signs of dehydration (such as nappies that aren't very wet, sunken eyes, and no tears when they cry)
Call 999 or go to the emergency department if your child 2 :
● has a stiff neck or is bothered by light
● has a rash that doesn't fade when you press a glass against it
● has a fit (febrile seizure) for the first time
● has unusually cold hands and feet, or pale, blotchy, blue or grey skin
● has a weak, high-pitched cry that's unlike their usual cry
● is drowsy and difficult to wake
● sucks their stomach in under their ribs and finds it hard to breathe
● has a soft spot on their head that curves outwards (the fontanelle is bulging)
Trust your judgement. If you believe your baby is ill, call a doctor no matter the temperature.
*Nurofen For Children FeverSmart™ Temperature Monitor does not replace continuous parental vigilance. Continue to monitor your child’s health and well-being.Accurate within ±0.2°C with correct usage. Environmental factors & child’s position may result in greater variance.Always read the label. Use only as directed. If symptoms persist see your healthcare professional. Always continue to monitor your child’s wellbeing.
** Nurofen for Children Orange/Strawberry: Singles / Cold, Pain and Fever 100g/5ml Oral suspension / Baby Oral suspension /3 months to 9 years 100mg/5ml Oral suspension / 3 months to 12 years Oral suspension. Contains ibuprofen, for children over 3 months (weighing more than 5kg) to 12 years. For pain relief. Nurofen for children 100 mg, chewable capsules, soft. For fever and pain relief in children aged 7 to 12 years. Contains Ibuprofen. Always read the label. Use only as directed.
If symptoms persist consult your healthcare professional. All information presented on these web pages is not meant to diagnose or prescribe.
For further advice please speak to your doctor or pharmacist
1. NHS-Wales. When should I worry?Your guide to Coughs, Colds, Earache & Sore Throats. Available at: http://www.wales.nhs.uk/sitesplus/documents/866/2012%20-%20When%20shoudl%20I%2 0worry%20-%20English.pdf. (Accessed: 25th October 2018)
2. NHS-UK. Fever in children. www.nhs.uk Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/fever-in-children/. (Accessed: 8th October 2018)
3. NHS-UK. Treating a fever (high temperature) in children. nhs.uk Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/treating-high-temperature-children/. (Accessed: 16th October 2018)
4. El-Radhi, A. S. & Barry, W. Thermometry in paediatric practice. Arch. Dis. Child. 91 , 351–356 (2006).
5. NHS-UK. What is a fever (high temperature) in children? nhs.uk Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/childrens-health/what-is-a-fever-high-temper ature-in-children/. (Accessed: 25th October 2018)
6. NHS-UK. Advice for managing child fever. nhs.uk Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/news/pregnancy-and-child/advice-for-managing-child-fever/. (Accessed: 25th October 2018)