Children's Fever: To Treat or Not To Treat

VIDEO: Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Centers Dr. Kathi Kemper explains.
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Dana Dalton, of Rural Hall, N.C., checked her baby daughter Isabelle into the hospital after her overnight high fever spell did not subside.

Dalton said Isabelle, just over a year old, showed no other symptoms such as a cough or sniffles. Isabelle was fussy and felt warm to touch, and a temperature stick revealed baby Isabelle had a little over 103 degree temperature.

Dalton, like many parents, quickly turned to fever-reducing medications like acetaminophen. But baby Isabelle's fever persisted.

"It's stressful," said Dalton, as she sat in the waiting room of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. "Because I don't know what's bothering her and she can't tell me what it is."

Longstanding belief, and even parental instinct, may compel you to fight your child's fever to ease the persistent crying and discomfort. But most experts say not to worry so much about treating your child's fever. In fact, they say, for children older than six months old, having a fever may be a good thing.

"Fever is often a good sign of a robust immune system," said Dr. Kathi Kemper, professor of pediatrics at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. "A fever in and of itself is not dangerous."

While fevers may feel uncomfortable for some kids, it typically means that their body is fighting off an underlying sickness, said Kemper. The most common include ear infections, the common cold, and the flu. But unless a child has accompanying symptoms like a cough, runny nose, or vomiting that might suggest one of these illnesses, it may be better to hold off on trying to treat the fever.

Instead, many experts said comforting a child through a fever is an effective way to help a child get over a fever faster.

"We always recommend supportive care," said Dr. Estevan Garcia, vice chair for emergency medicine at Maimonedes Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY. "Make sure they're hydrated, make sure they're eating and drinking."

Kemper agreed and added that even simply rocking your child in your arms or trying to keep him or her quietly distracted helps.

"Treat the child not the thermometer," said Kemper.

Still, many parents may feel concerned by misconceptions they may have heard.

According to Garcia, many parents fear their child's high fever could trigger a febrile seizure. Febrile seizures are short convulsions brought on by fevers usually higher than 103 degrees. While it can seem scary for parents, the seizures are rare and considered harmless to the child if handled properly, according to the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a part of the National Institutes of Health. Only about 4 percent of children experience febrile seizures with high fevers.

However, Garcia said, a fever may warrant a check-in with a doctor if it persists above 103 degrees and continues to make a child uncomfortable.

"When the behavior has changed to the point when the parent realizes Junior continues to feel uncomfortable even with support, then they might need an intervention," said Garcia.

Garcia said many experts will treat the fever with medication only to make a child comfortable. But he said the underlying cause of the fever is really what experts really look for to treat, not the fever itself.

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