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Kids and fever

Fevers usually aren't serious, but they should always be watched.

When a child has a fever, parents may worry. Fortunately, many fevers aren't serious, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Still, if your child has a fever, you'll want to watch for signs of serious illness. And if your child's fever climbs too high or lingers too long, you should know how to treat it properly and when to get help.

Causes of fever

According to the AAP, fevers can show that your child's immune system is working and fighting off an infection. Causes of fever can include:

  • A cold.
  • The flu.
  • Pneumonia.
  • Meningitis, an infection of the brain and spinal cord.
  • An ear infection.
  • A urinary tract infection.
  • Extreme physical activity.
  • Exposure to extreme heat.

Feeling your child's forehead might tell you if he or she is warmer than usual. But only a thermometer can show for sure if your child has a fever, according to the AAP.

Keep these guidelines in mind when taking your child's temperature:

  • For kids younger than 3 years, a rectal digital thermometer is best. For kids older than 3 months, underarm temperature may be taken. It won't be as accurate as a rectal reading though.
  • Once your child is 4 or 5 years old, temperature may be taken with an oral digital thermometer.
  • Caution: Never use a mercury thermometer. If you have one in your home, remove it to prevent accidental exposure to this toxin.

Most pediatricians consider a rectal temperature reading above 100.4 degrees to be a sign of a fever, according to the AAP. That number drops to above 99 degrees for an oral thermometer.

What you can do

If your child is feverish, these steps may help:

Give medicine. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are generally safe and effective in proper doses, according to the AAP. But do not give ibuprofen to infants 6 months or younger, and check with your doctor before giving any medicine to a child under the age of 2. Never give aspirin to a child. It can cause upset stomach and intestinal bleeding. It can also cause Reye's syndrome, which could be deadly.

Push fluids. Get your child to drink lots of liquids. This can help cool the body and prevent dehydration.

Try a bath. Place your child in a bath. Then sponge him or her with lukewarm (not cold) water. The water may cool your child.

Tip: Giving acetaminophen before a bath may help start bringing the fever down. That can help prevent shivering—which can raise temperature—during the bath, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Keep things comfy. Dress your child in light clothing, such as cotton pajamas, so that body heat can escape. And keep the room temperature between 70 and 74 degrees. If your child is chilled, put on an extra blanket, but remove it when the chills stop.

Encourage calmness. It may be easier said than done, but try to keep your child still and quiet.

When to call the doctor

Call the doctor right away if your child has a fever along with:

  • Changes in behavior.
  • Repeated vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Earache or pulling at the ears.
  • Whimpering or high-pitched crying.
  • Irritability.
  • Appetite loss.
  • Seizures.
  • Severe headache.
  • Skin rash.
  • Sore throat.
  • Stiff neck.
  • A shrunken soft spot on the head (in infants).
  • Unresponsiveness.
  • Trouble breathing.

You should also call a doctor right away if:

  • An infant younger than 3 months has a fever. Call the doctor even if your child doesn't seem sick. Babies this young can get very sick quickly.
  • A child of any age has a fever for more than a few days.

Reviewed 11/24/2020

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