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When Do You Need to Lower Your Child’s Fever?

Fever helps fight off infection. However, many parents treat a child's fever before it reaches a worrisome temperature.

Fever is the body’s response to infection. It can help keep pathogens from replicating and alert the immune system to produce more antibodies. However, many parents are quick to act to bring down a child’s fever.

What Do Parents Do About a Child’s Fever?

Although low-grade fevers are more a sign of a problem than a problem in themselves, parents may find them alarming. The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health found that more than one-third of parents give their children fever-reducing drugs even when the temperature is under 100.4 degrees F. Pediatricians usually advise against treating such a low fever unless the child is acting ill.

Investigators found that 65% of 1,376 parents polled record the time of administration of drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. About 84% generally take the child’s temperature again before giving a second dose. However, one-fourth of parents give another dose even if the child’s temperature has become normal. Presumably, they are attempting to keep the fever from returning.

Infants less than three months old should be seen by a health professional if they develop a fever. On the other hand, treating an older child’s fever may be counterproductive. In general, pediatricians discourage treating a low-level fever in the absence of symptoms such as drowsiness, pain or trouble breathing.

When Should Parents Treat a Youngster’s Fever?

Parents sometimes find it difficult to judge when treatment is appropriate, as this reader points out.

Q. At what point should you give a child Tylenol or ibuprofen to bring down a fever? When I was a young mother and took my child to the emergency room to find out why his temperature was high, the doctor berated me for not loading him up with aspirin.

A. There is no single temperature that necessitates treatment in a young child. According to Tieraona Low Dog, MD, author of Healthy at Home, it makes more sense to assess the child’s overall behavior. A child who is listless and not eating, even if the fever is only 99 or 100, may need prompt medical attention. A child with a fever of 102 who is active, eating and drinking probably doesn’t need a fever reducer. (You can listen to Dr. Low Dog giving this advice.)

Aspirin is no longer given to children with viral infections because it could lead to Reye’s syndrome. But even acetaminophen and ibuprofen don’t speed recovery from a cold or flu.

In fact, a recent study suggests that taking fever reducers during a bout of the flu increases viral replication and may help spread the flu to other people (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, March 7, 2014). To learn more about what actually helps the flu and how it should be treated, you may wish to consult our Guide to Colds, Coughs & the Flu.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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