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fever and children

Fever is defined as a higher than normal body temperature. Normal temperature is 37 degrees Celsius (c).

What is going on in the body? 
The body uses fever to help fight infection. Many other animals use this defence tool, as well. The body raises its temperature by creating heat from involuntary muscle contractions. This is commonly known as shivering.

Many calls to the doctor about sick children concern fever. Most of the time fevers in children are caused by viral infections. These include colds or stomach flu, minor illnesses that tend to be more inconvenient than dangerous.

The higher the fever, the more worried the parents. In very young children, even minor ailments can create fevers of 39.5 degrees Celsius or more. On the other hand, serious viral infections sometimes bring only moderate fevers. Fevers do NOT cause brain damage.

In judging how ill a child is, the height of the fever is not the most important factor. Parents need to look at the other symptoms. They also have to take into account their child's alertness and general appearance. These elements can all help a parent gauge how sick the child is and whether or not to seek medical advice. An exception is a fever in an infant under 2 months old. This always should result in a call to the doctor.

What are the treatments for the condition? 
Treatment of fever is fairly simple. Parents need to keep in mind that most fevers are part of the body's defence against infection. Treatment should be directed at making the child more comfortable.

When necessary, fever can be treated the following way:
  • The child should be dressed in light clothes. If the child is cold or is shivering, he or she should not be bundled up in blankets. Shivering means that the body is raising its temperature. Bundling the child will only insulate the body and make the temperature go higher. Letting the child wrap up in a bed sheet is a better idea.
  • A child with a temperature of 39.5 degrees Celsius or higher may be given a sponge bath in a shallow tub of tepid water for 10 minutes. This will help to lower the fever. Cold water should be avoided because these make the child too uncomfortable.
  • The child can be given medications such as paracetamol or ibuprofen if he or she seems uncomfortable. Aspirin should not be used in children or adolescents. With fevers, the use of Aspirin, especially in cases of chickenpox or influenza, has been connected with a serious disease called Reye's Syndrome (severe inflammation of the brain and liver).
  • A child with a fever needs more fluids, so generous amounts of liquids should be offered.
How is the condition monitored? 
It is important to monitor the mental status of a child with fever. Children with colds, flu, ear infections and other minor illness may be fussy and uncomfortable. But they will be alert and responsive to their surroundings. Children who have serious illnesses, however, will seem "out of it." They may appear "glassy-eyed" or not quite aware of what is going on around them. These symptoms are not specific to a particular illness. These are indications that a child is very ill and should get medical attention promptly.

Author: John Wegmann, MD
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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