Fever in Children: When to Call the Doctor

Fever Facts

If you’re a parent, you can probably relate to the warning bells that start ringing in your head when you find that your child has a fever.

A fever is typically defined as a rectal temperature over 100.4 degrees F. or an oral temperature above 99.5 degrees F. Normal temperature ranges vary depending on where the temperature is taken. A normal oral temperature is about 98.6 degrees F. A normal rectal temperature is about 99.6 degrees F.

Fever itself is not life threatening unless it is persistently higher than 107°F when measured rectally. Occasionally, a fever may indicate the presence of a serious illness, but are usually caused by common infections.

Causes of Fever in Children

Fevers experienced in childhood are usually caused by:

• Bacterial infections

• Viral infections

• Medications

• Illnesses related to heat exposure

Signs & Symptoms  of Fever in Children

Depending on your child’s age, the signs and symptoms of fever may be obvious or subtle. The following are some examples of symptoms that may present themselves in young, non-verbal children and in older, verbal children.


• Irritable

• Fussy

• Lethargic

• Quiet

• Feel warm or hot

• Not feed normally

• Cry

• Breathe rapidly

• Exhibit changes in sleeping or eating habits

• Seizure

Verbal children  may complain of the following:

• Feeling hotter or colder than others in the room who feel comfortable

• Body aches

• Headache

• Having difficulty sleeping or sleeping more

• Poor appetite

Taking  a Child’s Temperature

A rectal temperature is the most accurate temperature reading you can get and is recommended for infants; however, in a child older than three months of age, an oral temperature gives quite accurate results.

For parents who would prefer to take a rectal temperature, follow the directions below:

• Label your rectal thermometer so that it isn’t accidentally used in your child’s mouth.

• Clean the thermometer in lukewarm soapy water and rinse with cool water.

• Lubricate the end of the probe with a small amount of petroleum jelly.

• Place your child on his stomach across a firm surface or your lap.

• Gently slide the probe of the thermometer into the rectum about a 1/2 inch. Stop inserting the thermometer if it becomes difficult to insert.

• Continue to hold the thermometer the entire time you are taking the temperature.

• Keep the thermometer in place until it beeps.

• Remove the thermometer.

• Read the numbers in the window.

• Clean the thermometer with rubbing alcohol or wash it in cool, soapy water.

When taking your child’s temperature – whether orally or rectally – do not:

• Bundle your child up too tightly before taking his or her temperature.

• Take your child’s temperature right after he or she has had a bath.

• Leave your child alone while using a thermometer.

What kind of medicine  should I give my child, and how much?

Do not give any medicine to babies who are younger than two months of age without talking to your pediatric physician first. Fevers indicate that the body is fighting infection-causing germs, so parents of children between the ages of three months and three years who have a low-grade fever (up to 100.2 degrees F.) may want to avoid medicating them to bring the fever down.

If your child is uncomfortable as a result of the fever, consider giving him or her Acetaminophen (one brand name: Children’s or Infants’ Tylenol) or Ibuprofen (two brand names: Children’s Advil, Children’s Motrin). Both medications relieve pain and reduce fevers.

Do not give your child aspirin. In some cases, aspirin can cause Reye’s syndrome — a serious illness that can lead to death. Talk to your pediatrician about dosage.

Natural Relief of Fevers

Often, a fever’s symptoms subside without the use of medications. Review the following list of things parents can do to make their feverish child feel better:

• Ensure that your child drinks plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration and help the body cool itself. Serve water, clear soups, popsicles and flavored gelatins.

• Make sure your child gets plenty of rest.

• Adjust the thermostat to between 70 degrees F and 74 degrees F.

• Dress your child in light cotton pajamas.

• If your child experiences chills with the fever, use an extra blanket, making sure to remove it when the chills stop.

When should I call the doctor?

Oftentimes, a fever will resolve itself without a visit to the pediatric clinic, but if your child is:

Younger than three months of age with a rectal temperature of 100.4 degrees F., call your doctor right away, even if your baby doesn’t seem sick.

Three months of age to 6 months of age with a temperature of 101 degrees F., call your doctor, even if your baby doesn’t seem sick.

Six months of age and older and has a fever of 103 degrees F. or higher, call your doctor even if your child seems to feel fine.

Additionally, talk to your doctor if your baby or child has any of these warning signs in addition to the fever:

• Constant vomiting or diarrhea

• Dry mouth

• Earache or pulling at ears

• Fever comes and goes over several days

• High-pitched crying

• Irritability

• No appetite

• Pale appearance

• Seizures

• Severe headache

• Skin rash

• Sore or swollen joints

• Sore throat

• Stiff neck

• Stomach pain

• Swelling of the soft spot on an infant’s head

• Unresponsiveness or limpness

• Wheezing or problems breathing

• Whimpering