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When is a fever too high for a child?

Parents or caregivers should consult a doctor if their child of any age has repeated temperature readings above 104°F (40°C). However, most childhood fevers do not require treatment.

evers are common in children and happen when the body fights infections.

This article explains fever and how to take a child’s temperature. It also provides advice for looking after a child with a fever and when to seek medical help.

What is a fever?

A fever in children is a temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher.

Body temperature rises in response to infections, such as the flu or a cold. A high temperature, or fever, can happen for many reasons and is often nothing to worry about.

The average human body temperature is around 98.6℉ (37℃)Trusted Source. This temperature can vary a little throughout the day, peaking in the afternoon, although the body tries to keep temperature fluctuations under control.

How to take a child’s temperature

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends using a digital thermometer to take a child’s temperature. Healthcare professionals prefer rectal thermometers for children under 3 months.

The AAP provides the following advice about which parts of the body give the most accurate readings:

  • Rectal temperature, which a person measures in the anus, is the most accurate. Next is temporal artery temperature, which a person measures on the forehead using an infrared thermometer.
  • Oral (in the mouth) and tympanic (in the ear) temperatures can be accurate if people use the thermometers correctly.
  • Axillary temperatures, which a person measures in the armpit, are the least accurate. However, this method is suitable for a child of any age.

Quick screening methods, such as pacifier thermometers and fever strips, are less accurate than digital thermometers.

Digital thermometers usually give accurate readings if people carefully follow the manufacturer’s advice.

However, some things can make a child’s temperature temporarily higher. This can lead to inaccurately high readings. These situations include the child:

  • being wrapped in a blanket
  • wearing lots of layers
  • being in a very warm place
  • being very active
  • cuddling a hot water bottle
  • taking a bath

In these cases, allow them to cool down for a few minutes, but do not let them get cold or shivery. Retake their temperature to see if there is any change.

When to seek medical help for a fever

A fever in children is a temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher. However, most fevers do not require medical attention. Experts recommend that caregivers contact a doctor under the following circumstances:

  • The child is 2 months old or younger and has a rectal temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher.
  • A child of any age has a repeated temperature of 104°F (40℃).
  • The child has other signs of illness, such as a rash, repeated vomiting and diarrhea, sore throat, or ear pain.
  • The fever lasts for 5 days or more.

Although these signs may not warrant a visit to the emergency room, they are worth discussing with a doctor.

Other symptoms requiring immediate medical attention

The U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) notes that many symptoms require immediate medical attention in children. If a child has any of the following symptoms, it is best for caregivers to call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room:

  • stiff neck
  • non-blanching rash, which remains after pressing a glass against it
  • sensitivity to light, called photophobia
  • seizures
  • unusually cold feet and hands
  • skin, lips, or tongue that is blue, pale, or blotchy
  • an abnormally weak or high pitched cry
  • unusual drowsiness or fussiness
  • difficulty waking up
  • confusion
  • extreme agitation, which may involve constant crying
  • breathing difficulties
  • unresponsiveness
  • severe headache
  • signs of dehydration, such as not producing tears when crying, sunken eyes, or producing fewer wet diapers than usual

These symptoms may arise with or without a fever.

Tips for helping a child with a fever

Caregivers can treat most fevers at home. They should make sure that the child is as comfortable as possible and try:

  • keeping the child cool with light, loose clothing and avoiding heavy blankets
  • keeping the child’s room cool
  • offering them plenty of fluids, such as water or popsicles
  • ensuring that they get plenty of rest
  • giving them a sponge bath in lukewarm water — not cold water — and avoiding using alcohol baths or wipes, which are harmful

Should a child have medication for a fever?

Medication is often unnecessary to treat a fever, although acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help lower body temperature.

Research has shown that caregivers can prematurely give children anti-fever medications, which can prolong illness. Fevers are actually helpful in destroying viruses and bacteria, which struggle to live in hotter environments. Anti-fever medications can be dangerous at higher doses.

Medication safety

If considering giving a child medication, caregivers should remember the following:

  • Always read the package instructions to determine the correct dosage, which can differ with age and weight.
  • Talk with a healthcare professional before giving medication to a child under 3 months old.
  • Never give aspirin to a child under 16 years old due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome.
  • Do not give ibuprofen to a child under 6 months old.
  • Always use the syringe, dropper, or spoon that comes with the medication rather than a household teaspoon.


The outlook for children with fevers is generally good.

Only around 1%Trusted Source of childhood fevers are due to serious medical problems that require treatment. Most of these more serious problems are bacterial infections, such as pneumonia.


Fevers are the body’s natural response to infections and are not serious in most cases. Caregivers can treat most childhood fevers at home.

Children should see a doctor if they have a fever and symptoms of serious illness or are under 3 months old. Children of all ages require medical attention if their fever is very high or persistent.

Caregivers can help soothe a child with a fever by keeping them cool and ensuring they have plenty of fluids and rest.

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