A fever is part of your baby’s natural defence against an infection. We explain how to treat a child’s fever and recognise the signs of a more serious condition.
A fever is quite common in babies and small children and is often a sign that the body is trying to fight an infection. When the body’s temperature increases, it’s more difficult for bacteria and viruses that cause infection to survive.
The normal temperature for a baby, taken under his/her arm ranges from 36.5°C to 37.2°C. Some babies and young children also get a fever shortly after having their routine vaccinations. This should clear up quite quickly by itself, but if you’re concerned, speak to your public health nurse or GP.
You may be concerned that your baby has a fever, if they:
- feel hotter than usual to the touch – on their forehead, back or stomach
- feel sweaty or clammy
- have flushed cheeks
How to take your baby’s temperature
Taking your child’s temperature will help you work out whether you need to call a doctor. To find out if your child has a fever, place a thermometer under their armpit or use a special ear or strip thermometer.
To find out your child’s temperature, hold them comfortably on your knee and place the thermometer under their armpit (always use the thermometer under the armpit with children under five). Gently, but firmly hold their arm against their body to keep the thermometer in place, for the time stated in the manufacturer’s instructions (usually about 15 seconds).
Some digital thermometers beep when they are ready. The display on the thermometer will then show you your child’s temperature.
Ear (or tympanic) thermometers allow you to take a temperature reading from the ear. These thermometers are quick but expensive, and can sometimes give misleadingly low readings, especially in babies, if they’re not correctly placed in the ear.
Strip-type thermometers are held on to the child’s forehead, and are not an accurate way of taking a temperature. They show the temperature of the skin, rather than the body.
Red flag temperatures
Always contact your GP, health visitor, practice nurse or nurse practitioner if:
- Your child has other signs of illness as well as a raised temperature.
- Your baby’s temperature is 38C (100.4F) or higher (if they’re under three months), OR
- Your baby’s temperature is 39C (102.2F) or higher (if they’re three to six months).
Can I give my child painkillers?
Some painkillers are only suitable for children over a certain age or in small doses. Always read the label to make sure you give the correct dosage for your child’s age and do not exceed the stated dose.
Follow these tips from the clinical knowledge service or speak to your GP or pharmacist if you aren’t sure:
1. Babies aged between two and three months old can have children’s liquid paracetamol, as long as they weigh over 4kg (9lb) and weren’t born prematurely (before 37 weeks of pregnancy). This can be bought over the counter. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the correct dose. Doctors can sometimes make different dosage recommendations.
2. They can have up to two doses four to six hours apart, but if the fever doesn’t get better, or if your baby is ill for any other reason, it’s important to seek medical advice.
3. Children and babies over three months old can be given paediatric paracetamol oral suspension (liquid paracetamol). Older children can take tablets, or tablets dissolved in water. However, don’t give paracetamol if there is a history of any previous adverse reactions, or sensitivity to paracetamol.
4. Children and babies over three months old can also have ibuprofen as long as they weigh over 5kg (11lb) and they don’t have a history of asthma, heart problems, kidney problems, stomach ulcers or indigestion. However, you shouldn’t give your child ibuprofen if they have a history of any previous adverse reactions or sensitivity to it. Speak to your GP or pharmacist if you’re unsure.
5. Do not give aspirin to children under 16.
6. Keep all medicines out of the reach of children and in a locked cupboard. Do not leave medicines out. If you need to remind yourself, write yourself a note.
What are febrile seizures?
Febrile seizures are a relatively common childhood condition, referring to a child having a seizure (fit) when they have a high temperature of 38ºCF (100.4ºF) or above. This is usually the result of an infection.
During simple febrile seizures, your child’s body will become stiff and their arms and legs will begin to twitch. They will lose consciousness and they may wet or soil themselves. Your child may also vomit and foam at the mouth. The seizure usually lasts for less than five minutes. Following a febrile seizure, your child may be sleepy for up to an hour afterwards. Although very rare, a seizure can sometimes be a sign of a more serious illness, such as meningitis, which requires emergency medical treatment.
How to ease your child’s discomfort from a fever
- Ensure they are cool and comfortable, preferably in bed with a light covering.
- Give the child plenty of cool drinks to replace bodily fluids lost through sweating.
- Dispense the recommended dose of paracetamol (see instructions on packaging for details on exact measurements) if the child appears particularly distressed or unwell.
- Carefully monitor and record the child’s vital signs, i.e. level or response, breathing, pulse and temperature.
- Should you feel that your child is at risk of a seizure being induced as a result of the raised temperature, cool the child by removing his/her clothes and bed covering. If you are in doubt about the child’s condition, seek medical advice immediately.
Take your child to the doctor if he has any of the symptoms below:
- You are worried.
- He is under 12 months and has a fever.
- He has a fever that continues for more than 48 hours.
- He has a very high temperature – over 40°C/104°F.
- He convulses.
- He is getting sicker.
- He is very sleepy or particularly irritable.
- He has a rash.
- He shows unusual symptoms inlcuding stiff neck, vomiting, stomach pains, or skin discolouration.
- He is experiencing ongoing pain, for example, stomach ache, headache or earache.
- He has an injury and is experiencing pain.
- He is having trouble breathing due to a cough or wheezing.
- He is vomiting or isn’t able to drink.
- He is not feeding properly.
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