It's not always necessary to lower a child's fever, but parents often do.
A new poll from Michigan Medicine found that about one-third of parents reach for fever-reducing medicines too quickly.
“Often parents worry about their child having a fever and want to do all they can to reduce their temperature. However, they may not be aware that in general the main reason to treat a fever is just to keep their child comfortable,” said Dr. Susan Woolford, co-director of the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health at University of Michigan Health, in Ann Arbor.
“Some parents may immediately rush to give their kids medicine, but it's often better to let the fever run its course,” Woolford said in a university news release. “Lowering a child's temperature doesn't typically help cure their illness any faster. In fact, a low-grade fever helps fight off the infection. There's also the risk of giving too much medication when it's not needed, which can have side effects.”
The poll surveyed nearly 1,400 parents of children aged 12 and under between August and September 2022.
The results showed that even though parents recognize the benefits of a low-grade fever for fighting off infection, about one-third would still give their child fever-reducing medication at temperatures below 100.4.
Half would do so at a temperature between 100.4 and 101.9, while about one-quarter of parents would give another dose later to help prevent a fever from returning.
The most common way of taking their children's temperature among polled parents was by forehead scan or mouth. Fewer than one-sixth used ear, underarm or rectal methods.
“Regardless of the device used, it's important that parents review the directions to ensure the method is appropriate for the child's age and that the device is placed correctly when measuring temperature,” Woolford said.
Sometimes a forehead reading can be inaccurate if the scanner is held too far away or the child's forehead is sweaty, and ear thermometers aren't recommended for newborns. Rectal temperatures are most accurate in infants and young children. Ear thermometers can be accurate if used correctly. Oral temperatures are accurate in children who are able to hold a thermometer in their closed mouth. Armpit temperatures are the least accurate method.
About two-thirds of parents said they would use a cool washcloth on their child before giving the child fever-reducing medication. Most said they always or usually record the time of each dose and re-take their child's temperature before giving another dose.
It's important to know that while fevers can work against viruses and bacteria, fever-reducing medications can mask symptoms.
“Medications used to lower temperatures also treat pain, but pain is often a sign that helps to locate the source of an infection,” Woolford said. “By masking pain, fever-reducing medication may delay a diagnosis being made and delay receiving treatment if needed.”
Parents of young children should avoid using combination cold medications along with fever-reducing medications, Woolford cautioned.
Alternatives to help relieve discomfort include keeping the room cool, not allowing them to overexert themselves, dressing them in light clothing, and keeping them hydrated with fluids or popsicles.
If the child with a fever is an infant younger than 3 months, it's time to call the doctor. Call the doctor at any sign of fever in this age group, Woolford advised.
Also call the doctor for children aged 4 months to 12 months if a fever is accompanied by decreased activity, increased fussiness or decreased urine.
Call if the child has signs of pain or if they are not acting themselves even when their temperature comes down.
Other times to reach out to the doctor are if a fever reaches 104 degrees or if a fever remains for more than 24 hours in children under 2, or more than three days in children 2 and older.
The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia has more on fever in healthy children.
SOURCE: Michigan Medicine - University of Michigan, news release, Feb. 20, 2023