There may be nothing scarier to new parents than a spike in their baby’s temperature. Because babies can’t complain, fever is often the only indication that something is wrong. But a raised temperature is rarely the enemy. In fact, a fever can be beneficial by fighting the virus or bacteria causing it.
“Fever is the body’s natural response—usually to some infection—which causes chemical mediators to increase and fight it,” explains Andrea McCoy, M.D., director of primary care at Temple University Children’s Medical Center in Philadelphia. “Reducing a fever slows this process down.”
McCoy says that many parents harbor a great fear that unchecked fevers could surge upward of 106ÞF and lead to brain damage. But in her practice, which spans 15 years, she’s rarely seen a temperature that high.
In fact, a recent study reported in Pediatrics found that “fever phobia,” a term the medical profession coined 20 years ago to describe many parents’ unrealistic concerns about fever, persists today. The report determined that parents and caregivers need to be better educated about the risks and, yes, even the benefits, of fevers.
When (and when not) to medicate> If your baby has a moderate fever (99Þ to 100ÞF), ride it out. “The [low-grade] fever itself isn’t harmful; if there are no symptoms like discomfort, you don’t have to try to reduce it,” McCoy says.
A baby with a temperature of 101ÞF or more might warrant medication for discomfort; giving her some acetaminophen, for example, may help her to sleep better and drink fluids. Yet treating a child for a fever can bring problems. For example, once a child begins to feel better, it can be difficult to assess how sick she actually is.
While fever reduction at 101ÞF or higher is well-advised, many parents will bring on the medicine when the mercury first begins to rise. This is a mistake; it’s better to wait and see what happens. Roughly three-fourths of all baby fevers stem from some sort of virus (such as the flu), which usually goes away on its own, says Ken Jordan, M.D., medical director of inpatient services at Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill. “But fevers can also come from bacterial infections or urinary-tract infections,” he says, “and those need to be evaluated and treated.” Any fever of 101ÞF or higher for more than two days warrants a call to the doctor.
Most doctors agree that fevers are most serious in babies younger than 2 months, so consult your physician immediately if the rectal temperature of a very young baby hits 100.4ÞF. It’s also important to watch for accompanying signs in older babies. If your child is unresponsive, isn’t eating or drinking, or seems to be in real pain, contact your doctor regardless of the temperature.