When to See a Doctor About a Child’s Fever

While body temperature can differ by individual, 98.6°F is regarded as the normal body temperature for most people, though the exact number can vary slightly throughout the day based on activity or exposure to hot environments. When your child’s body temperature measures 100.4°F or higher, they have a fever.

While the lethargy, irritability, and loss of appetite that often accompany a fever can make your child seem very sick, a fever is not the cause of these symptoms. Alone, a fever is not a disease. Instead, a fever usually indicates that your child’s immune system is actively working to protect them from invading bacteria or viruses, which can’t endure high temperatures.

While most childhood fevers don’t indicate a serious problem and typically disappear in a few days, some fevers are a sign that your child needs immediate medical care. Board-certified family physician Karl Trippe, MD, and the staff of Waco Primary Care in Waco, Texas, have the expertise necessary to diagnose and treat the causes of fevers and other common pediatric conditions.

When your child’s fever indicates the need for medical care, our caring staff works to arrange a sick visit promptly to ensure that your child receives the treatment they need.

It can be challenging to know whether your child’s fever is an indication of a common infection or serious illness. In this blog, Dr. Trippe discusses some general guidelines to consider when evaluating your child’s condition.

Why fevers occur in children

If it seems that your child has fevers frequently, that’s not unusual. Young immune systems can aggressively attack every germ that enters the body, causing fevers often. In contrast, an adult immune system has matured, so it knows not to react with full force to a minor illness, such as a common cold.

Acute fever is a fever that endures up to 14 days. Some common reasons for acute fever include:

  • Viral infection of the digestive tract (gastroenteritis)
  • Viral infection of the respiratory system, such as a cold or flu
  • Bacterial infection in the lungs (pneumonia), ears (otitis media), brain (encephalitis and Kawasaki disease), the tissue covering your brain (meningitis), joints (septic arthritis), or skin (cellulitis)
  • Vaccination and medication side effects

Chronic fever is an elevated body temperature that persists for more than 14 days. Chronic fever can occur as a result of a serious condition, such as the following:

  • Pneumonia
  • Hepatitis
  • Sinusitis
  • Heart or bone infections
  • Connective tissue disorder (juvenile idiopathic arthritis)
  • Ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
  • Childhood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma

Fevers that may need medical treatment

Every child experiences illnesses and fevers uniquely. In babies and young children who can’t fully communicate their symptoms, it can be difficult to assess the need for care.

The most telling sign of fever in children often involves shifts in their appearance and behavior. Irritability, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and disinterest in play can often indicate the degree of illness better than the number on the thermometer.

Call our office for instructions if your child’s fever is accompanied by any of the following characteristics:

  • Less than 3 months old
  • Loss of ability to drink fluids
  • Lethargy or listlessness
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Signs of dehydration (dark or infrequent urination, sunken eyes, crying without tears, reduced alertness and activity)
  • Pain with urination
  • Rash, splotches, or tiny reddish-purple dots
  • Fever without other symptoms
  • Has a chronic medical condition, such as cancer, leukemia, or organ transplant

It’s not uncommon for children between three months and five years who have a fever to experience febrile seizures, which are convulsions that are triggered by fever in young children. While these episodes aren’t considered dangerous, it’s wise to seek a medical evaluation if one occurs.

Fevers that require emergency care

Only about 1% of children who develop fevers have a serious medical condition that requires treatment. However, if a serious illness affects your child, symptoms can worsen quickly. It’s up to you to identify the need for care if a fever results in life-threatening symptoms.

If your child develops any of the following symptoms with a fever, seek immediate emergency care:

  • Inability to awaken
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Confusion
  • Headache and/or neck stiffness
  • Inability to produce saliva or swallow
  • Inconsolable crying

While these symptoms are a general guide, don’t ignore your parental instincts if you feel that something is wrong with your child. A fever increases physical stress on your child’s body, which can be exhibited in many ways, some of which may be unique to your child.

You should never think twice about calling our office to discuss your concerns about a fever or other signs of illness in your child.