A fever is often treated by parents and many health care providers as an illness on its own, but we have to remember that a fever is a symptom of something else that is going on. It is a healthy response by the body and is not inherently dangerous. This is even true in the rare event that a child has a febrile seizure (caused by a rapid change in temperature). While they are scary to experience, there is actually no known neurological damage or impairment associated with them (though you'll want to contact a health care provider right away to rule out a more serious cause). There are many potential reasons for fevers to present, the most common reason being a viral infection where you'll see the fever accompany other symptoms like a runny nose, cough, and sore throat. Other more worrisome causes include bacterial infections, urinary tract infections, dehydration, and meningitis to name a few.
Looking for the root cause of the fever and treating it should be our first step. Understanding that the fever is a beneficial immune booster and then supporting it within safe limits is the second step.
So, what are those safe limits?
A rectal temperature above 100.4°F in a child is considered a fever.
If a fever presents in an infant under 3 months of age- this warrants an immediate visit to your medical doctor's office or emergency room for evaluation.
If a child is 3-6 months of age and they have a high fever (over 103.5°F)- you should also have them checked out by a medical doctor right away.
A child of any age with a fever over 104°F and/or signs of serious illness (ie. stiff neck, severe vomiting or headache, severe tummy ache, lack of peeing, lethargy, rapid breathing or decreased breath sounds, inconsolability) should be seen immediately.
A high fever (considered >103.5°F) in a chid does warrant the use of a fever reducing medication like Tylenol or Ibuprofen (not Aspirin) to bring it down a bit, not necessarily eliminate it. These medications are not risk free (with links to gastritis and liver toxicity) and thus should be reserved for when they are absolutely necessary such as times like this. If the fever doesn't reduce shortly after administration of the medication, then a visit to the doctor would be advised.
Most fevers are beneficial and get their work done within a few days or so, but if a fever was lasting a long time (more than a week) or was on the high side for 3-4 days- you'll want to make a visit to your M.D.
So, how can we treat the fever at home before reaching for the Tylenol or Ibuprofen?
- The most important thing will be to keep your little one well hydrated. This can be done with broths, coconut water, and fresh diluted fruit or vegetable juices if we are having trouble getting them to keep up with their fluid intake.
- Allow your child to stay home and rest.
- Increase their comfort with some herbal support. Small amounts of Chamomile or Lemon Balm tea throughout the day, even in babies, is great for calming their nervous systems.
- As most fevers are due to self-limiting viral infections- add in some supplements to support the immune system such as probiotics, Zinc, Vitamin C, and a great anti-viral herb called Andrographis.
- Keep their immune systems strong through their diet by eliminating refined sugars, eliminating/reducing dairy during the illness, encourage lots of veggies and healthy protein sources like chicken, fish, and legumes. (Don't stress too much though if their appetite is down, as is often the case when we are fighting off an infection).
In the end, follow your instincts as a parents because you know your child best and seek medical attention when in doubt!
American Academ of Family Physicians: http://www.aafp.org/afp/2013/0215/p254.html
Advanced Health Assessment and Clinical Diagnosis in Primary Care 3rd Edition by Dains, Baumann & Scheibel
Naturally Healthy Babies and Children by Dr. Romm
*disclaimer - the purpose of this post is intended to be informative and not to replace the advice of your primary care health provider