If your child has ever had a fever, you know how scary it can be. Often a fever can indicate an infection or illness—leaving you and your child feeling helpless. While these types of fevers may signal that your child is fighting off an infection, they are typically harmless. However, there are times when a fever is too high and can be dangerous.

In order to tell the difference between a harmless fever and a potentially dangerous one, let’s break down what a fever is and the causes behind it.

What is a Fever?

When your child’s internal thermostat—found in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus—pushes his or her body temperature higher than its normal level, it is considered a fever.

It’s normal for the body’s temperature to fluctuate a bit throughout the day. For instance, a typical body temperature is usually lower in the morning and higher in the evening.

For children who are often running around, a normal body temperature can vary. If it gets higher than it should be, the hypothalamus will send a message to your child’s body to reset to a normal temperature, typically around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, if your child is suffering from an infection or illness, the hypothalamus will sometimes reset the body temperature to a higher degree in an effort to fight off germs.

What Causes Fever?

If your child has a fever, it is important to note that the fever itself is not considered an illness—it is symptomatic of something else. Here are three common causes.

Infection or illness

Oftentimes, an infection or other illness causes a fever. The fever actually helps your child’s body fight infections by simulating natural defense mechanisms.

Vaccinations

A low-grade fever can occur after an infant or child has been vaccinated.

Overdressed

Bundling up your child too much can cause a temporary rise in temperature.

Important note for newborns: If your newborn has a fever for any reason (even if you suspect it is from being over-bundled) it is critical that he or she is examined by a doctor. Fevers in newborns can be caused by a serious infection.

When is a Fever Too High?

A fever that is too high can not only make your child uncomfortable, it can also cause problems such as dehydration and other complications. Here are some guidelines for when you should see a doctor for your child’s fever.

Infants

When it comes to very young babies, even a low-grade fever can be serious. If your child is 3 months old or younger and has a rectal temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, it is critical that you go to the emergency room immediately.

3 months to 3 years

If your older child has with a fever of 102.2 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, you should call your child’s doctor or visit an urgent care facility, such as Medical City Children’s Urgent Care.

4 years and older

When it comes to older kids, behavior and activity level should be taken into account. If your child is still interested in playing, eating and drinking well, alert and smiling at you, and has maintained a normal skin color, he or she is probably not suffering from an illness. If your child’s temperature is less than 102 degrees Fahrenheit, it is unlikely that he or she will need medication. However, you can choose to treat any symptoms with pediatric over-the-counter medications if your child is uncomfortable.

How to Help When Your Child Has a Fever

If your child’s fever is low and does not require medical treatment, there are a few things that you can do at home to help ease symptoms.

Pain medication

If your child (more than 2 months old) feels uncomfortable, try a pain medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. (Always check the package recommendations to ensure that you are giving your child the correct dosage.) While pain medication can help bring down a fever temporarily, it won’t cure the underlying problem that is causing the fever.

Do not give any medication to infants under the age of 2 months without first checking with your doctor.

Cool your child’s environment

Dress your child in lightweight clothing and avoid over-bundling in a heavy blanket. Keep your child’s bedroom cool—but not too cold.

Hydrate

When your child has a fever, he or she will lose fluids more quickly than usual. Make sure your child stays hydrated by offering plenty of fluids, including water (if older than 6 months), ice pops, soup and flavored gelatins. Avoid caffeinated drinks, which can make your child’s dehydration worse by causing increased urination.

Rest

Finally, encourage your child to rest. While staying in bed may not always be necessary, it is prudent to keep your child home from school or childcare. In fact, many schools will not allow children with a fever to attend classes.

Most doctors recommend that your child’s temperature be normal for at least 24 hours before returning to school or childcare.

When to See a Doctor for a Fever

The fever is high.

If your child is suffering from a high fever, it is important that he or she is seen by a medical professional—no matter what:

  • For an infant under the age of 3 months, a fever is considered high when a rectal temperature is 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
  • For children older than 3 months, this means a temperature of 102.2 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

Your child has additional symptoms.

If your older child has a fever that is lower than 102.2 degrees Fahrenheit but experiences any of the following symptoms, call your doctor immediately:

  • Seems too ill to drink or refuses fluids
  • Vomits repeatedly or has lasting diarrhea
  • Complains of something specific—like a sore throat or earache
  • Shows signs of dehydration
  • Suffers from fevers frequently
  • Holds a fever for more than 24 hours
  • Has been diagnosed with a chronic medical problem
  • Has a rash or pain while peeing

You have a newborn or suspect a severe infection.

If you have a newborn or believe that your child is suffering from a severe infection, call 911 or go to the nearest ER.

For full-service pediatric care that’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year, consider Medical City Children’s Hospital ER in Dallas.

Disclaimer: Patients’ health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you.