Why does my child have a high temperature (fever)?
As children build their immunity, their bodies are learning how to fight off many different types of nasty bugs and infections. A high temperature is a natural defence mechanism that the body uses to make it difficult for viruses and infections to survive. Common childhood causes of fever include:
- Colds and flu
- Ear infections
- Urinary tract infections
- Whooping cough
Infections are not the only causes of childhood fevers. A baby’s temperature often also rises during teething and after vaccination. The most common cause of a fever is a simple viral infection such as a cough or cold.
How can I tell if my child has a fever?
Your child may have a fever if they feel hotter than usual when you touch their forehead, back or stomach, feel sweaty or have flushed cheeks. These are common signs of a fever but you can also check their temperature with a thermometer.
The signs of fever in babies can vary according to the underlying cause, but here are some of the most common signs to look out for if you suspect your baby has a fever.
Feeling shivery and cold on the outside can be an indication of a fever. If you suspect your baby has a fever, check their temperature with a thermometer. It’s important to be able to accurately determine whether or not your baby has a high temperature so that you can look after them properly.
Appearing hot and flushed
You will usually be able to tell if your baby has a fever just by touching them as their forehead, back or stomach will feel hotter than usual. A flushed face can also be a sign of fever in babies.
You know your baby best so trust your mother’s instinct. Crying more than usual, or a cry that sounds different could be a sign of fever. Equally, if your baby seems more lethargic this could also be an indication of fever.
Loss of appetite
Loss of appetite can be an indication that your baby has a fever. If you notice that your baby does not want to drink as much as usual or eat if they are old enough for solid foods, it could mean that something isn’t quite right. Offer regular feeds to keep them hydrated and note down how much your baby is feeding, so that you can talk to your GP if you’re concerned.
A high temperature
A temperature higher than 38 degrees Celsius is classed as high.
A normal body temperature for babies and children is about 36.4C, but this can vary slightly from child to child. Any temperature at or above 38C is classified as a fever.
There are other indications of a serious fever other than the temperature, these can include:
- Age plays a role because a fever is more serious for babies younger than 3 months.
- Behaviour is an indicator, because if the fever doesn't keep your baby from playing or feeding like normal, there may not be cause for alarm.
- Lastly, everyone's temperature goes up in the late afternoon and early evening and falls during midnight and early morning hours. This is a natural cycle but it also is the reason why most doctors get calls about fevers during the late afternoon and early evening.
How to ensure your baby's or child's temperature reading is accurate
Using a digital thermometer can help to give you an accurate reading of your baby's temperature, but there are a few things that could alter the accuracy of the readings. It's best to wait a few minutes before taking your baby’s temperature if they have been:
- Wearing lots of clothes
- Having a bath
- Tucked up in a blanket
- In a very warm room
- Eating or drinking in the past 10 minutes
How can I help my feverish child feel better?
Many parents try to avoid giving their child medication if they don't have to. There are several non-medical ways that you can use to try and lower your child’s fever before needing to use a fever-relief medication like ibuprofen or paracetamol.
Just remember that reducing your child's fever does not fix the main illness or problem that is causing the fever. The high temperature itself may help your child’s body fight off the infection. However, lowering their fever may help your child feel better.
Some non-medical ways to help care for your feverish child include:
- Plenty of fluids and chilled foods, like popsicles or yoghurt, can cool your child's body and help with hydration.
- Avoid dressing them up in too many clothes.
- Offer them food if they want it;
- Be sure to keep the room they're in well aired and cool. Or, stay in the shade if you're outside.
Fevers are usually not a cause for concern and can often be treated at home. Depending on the underlying cause, a fever will usually go away on its own within a few days.
You should contact your GP or healthcare professional if your child:
- Is under 3 months old and is ill-looking or has a temperature of 38C or above
- Is between 3-6 months old and has a temperature of 39C or above
- A baby 3 months and older looks and acts differently or doesn’t eat well.
- A baby is pale or flush or has fewer wet nappies.
- Has a high temperature that is not coming down with ibuprofen or paracetamol
- Has a fever lasting more than 5 days
- Seems dehydrated
- Has frequent fevers combined with night sweats, fatigue, and/or swollen lymph nodes
- Has a fit (seizure)
- Has a high-pitched or unusual sounding cry
- Has blotchy skin or a rash
- Your baby has trouble breathing (is breathing faster than normal or is working harder to breathe) even after you use a bulb syringe to clear their nose. This could indicate a respiratory illness
- Seems very ill, is unresponsive or is getting worse
Remember, you know your child best so if you are worried about your child being seriously ill, trust your instincts and call your GP. If you cannot reach them, you can call NHS 111 for further advice about treating your child. If your child is unresponsive or very ill, take them to an urgent care centre or the emergency department.
*Disclaimer: in addition to monitoring your child’s temperature, it is important that you also continuously monitor your child’s overall well-being.