A child with a fever is one of the most frequent reasons a parent either calls their pediatrician or brings them to the office to be seen. When I was a resident the term “fever phobia” came into use, and it referred to parents concerns about fever and its harmful consequences. I must say, some 30 years later, fever phobia still persists and there is still a lot of inaccurate information floating around and even on the internet.
In fact, looking back at studies done in the 1980’s, 52% of parents thought that a fever of 104 degrees could cause serious neurological damage...and 20-30 years later 21% of parents still believe that brain damage is the primary harmful effect of fever and 14% even thought that fever alone could cause death.
So, here we go a fever update for all, especially for new parents to keep them from worrying unnecessarily. Fever is just a symptom of an inflammatory response in the body, and may be due to many things including a viral infection, which is the most common reason for a child over 2 -3 months of age to develop a fever. Fever occurs when something in our bodies called “cytokines” are released and these increase the level of prostaglandins in the hypothalamus; and the hypothalamus is the body’s temperature regulator. When this occurs the body’s thermostat elevates and raises the body’s internal temperature. There you go...lots of science...but trying to explain this in the middle of the night to an anxious parent....they really don’t care about cytokines!
Fever in and of itself does NOT cause brain damage and in fact may be beneficial to a child with a viral infection. The most important thing for parents to watch is not the number on the thermometer (and many worried parents will take a temperature every 30 minutes to an hour), but rather how your child is behaving. While your child may have 103.6 degree temperature are they still smiling on occasion and making good eye contact, are they still eating and drinking ( again maybe less than usual as they are sick), will they play with a toy off an on, or wake up from a nap and watch some TV? (yes, you can still let your child watch TV when they are sick!). This is the hardest thing for me to help teach new parents....behavior is always far more important than any reading on a thermometer.
Parents of course want to do something to help their child’s fever. Treating your child’s fever with some acetaminophen or ibuprofen might make them more comfortable and therefore a bit happier as well. Make sure to use the appropriate dosages for weight and age and the correct dosing device as well when giving these medicines.
Getting through a few episodes of fever will also help...remember, “fever is your friend” and shows that your body is working to fight off that nasty virus....but if you are worried, always call your doctor!