What exactly is fever?
Generally, a fever is the body’s natural reaction to infection. From a temperature standpoint, the health profession typically defines fever as any body temperature greater than 37 degrees Celsius. However, temperature can vary from body part to body part and from thermometer to thermometer, depending on where you’re measuring your child’s temperature and with which type of thermometer, as different models have varying degrees of accuracy.
It helps to have a guide to normal temperature ranges by thermometer type (though always check the manufacturing information for your own individual thermometer):
- For forehead temperature, the normal range with a forehead thermometer is 35.8 to 37.6 degrees Celsius.
- For ear temperature, the normal range with an ear thermometer is 36 to 37.8 degrees Celsius.
- For rectal temperature, the normal range with a standard thermometer is 36.3 to 37.8 degrees Celsius.
- And for orally measured temperature, the normal range with a conventional thermometer is 36 to 37.4 degrees Celsius.
If you find your child does have a fever, you might also notice they:
- Feel hot to your touch.
- Have a faster heart rate and breathing rate.
- Look unwell.
- Are more irritable or sleepier than usual.
- Have flushed, sweaty or clammy skin.
- Are shivering.
What causes fever?
A higher temperature shows that your body's immune system is attacking something, according to Dr Dasha Fielder, a Bondi GP and mum. Colds are one of the most common causes of fever in children – children get around six to eight colds a year. “Fever is a sign of your body fighting, and I always say it's a good sign,” says Fielder.
Some children also develop a fever after vaccination. Fielder says it shows that their body is learning how to fight the bug they were vaccinated against. “After vaccination, around 10 per cent of children mount a fever, but it's usually around only 37.5 to 37.8 degrees.”
Whatever the fever's cause, if you see your child's temperature reach 38.5 degrees Celsius, call your doctor or get to urgent care right away.
What’s the best way to measure their temperature?
Grandma’s trick of feeling your littlie’s forehead with the back of your hand and comparing it with how warm your own forehead feels may be an intuitive first step, but you do still need a thermometer to find out your sick child's precise temperature. It's the only way to get an accurate reading on the fever you may or may not be dealing with.
Fielder recommends that all parents have a thermometer. As mentioned above, results – and opinions – vary across the healthcare profession around which thermometers are the most accurate, but you have a number of options. For accuracy, Fielder is partial to the old-fashioned mercury ones that go under the arm (but be careful not to break them). And though trusty, these devices can be difficult to use, especially when your child is sick. The digital ones you use orally or rectally can also be ultra-efficient. Your pharmacist can help you choose one. “Whichever one Mum finds is easy, accessible and simple to use is a good idea,” says Fielder.
How can you relieve your child’s fever?
If the fever is making your child uncomfortable, reducing it can help them feel better. “If the child is miserable, not feeding, clearly uncomfortable and the temperature is above 38.5, then we do recommend you give them an [anti-inflammatory] agent,” says Fielder. “If the child is happy, playing and feeding and the temperature is not exceeding 38.5, then it's okay not to give them something.” If you're in doubt, call your doctor.
Between doses of an analgesic designed specifically for children, such as Nurofen for Children*, you can also give them a lukewarm bath (but not a cool one), or sponge them with lukewarm water. Dress them in light clothes.
Keeping your child’s fluids up is vital. Keep offering small drinks of water, diluted juice (one part juice to three parts water) or milk.
When does your child need to see a doctor?
Most fevers are the result of mild childhood illnesses and are easy to control. However, you should see a doctor if you feel worried, or if your child:
- Is younger than six months.
- Is vomiting and not drinking.
- Is in pain.
- Is particularly sleepy.
- Has a fever above 38.5 degrees Celsius.
- Has a fever for more than a day.
- Has a stiff neck, rash or problems breathing.
Although most of the illnesses that cause fevers last just a few days, they can be difficult days for you both. You can help your kids feel more comfortable by dressing them lightly and giving them frequent fluids and an appropriate analgesic designed specifically for children. Nurofen for Children contains ibuprofen, which relieves pain and can help reduce fever for up to eight hours. With your loving care, most children will soon be back to their normal, bubbly selves.
*Always read the label. Use only as directed. Incorrect use could be harmful. Consult your healthcare professional if symptoms persist. Do not give to babies under 3 months. Seek medical advice for children less than 1 year.