Fever in children:  when to call a doctor

fever in children

Fever in Children: When To Call A Doctor

If your child has a temperature of over 37.5ºC, the chances are your child has a fever. These are very common and in most cases the symptoms will clear up on it’s own.

How to take your child’s temperature

Temperature taking

There are a number of different ways you can check if your child has a fever:

  • Oral. The thermometer is inserted under the tongue, the mouth is closed and a reading is taken.2
  • Rectal. The thermometer is gently inserted into the rectum (child’s bottom) and a reading is taken.2
  • Armpit. The thermometer is placed under the armpit and the arm is held against the side of the body while a reading is taken.
  • Ear. A digital thermometer is inserted into the ear and a reading is taken.

Always ensure that you read the instructions provided with the thermometer before you use it.

There are different types of thermometer you can use:

  • Digital. These thermometers are quick and accurate and can be used for taking temperatures orally, rectally and under the armpit.
  • Ear. These digital thermometers are inserted into the ear and can only be used to take ear temperatures. They can be more expensive than other types of thermometer.1
  • Strip. These are placed against your child’s forehead, and show the temperature of the skin, but not the body. They are not very accurate.1
  • Glass. There are two types of glass thermometer; those that contain a colored alcohol to measure the temperature, or the more old-fashioned type which contain mercury. The use of mercury glass thermometers is not recommended, as mercury can be highly poisonous.1

A fever is the body’s way of helping your child fight off infections and illnesses. It works by turning up the temperature and making it difficult for bacteria and viruses to thrive.

The important thing to remember is that you know your child better than anyone. So, if you think he or she needs medical care for a fever, call your child’s pediatrician or other healthcare provider.



If you notice any of the following warning signs, you should seek medical attention immediately:

  • A baby under 3 months of age has any fever1,2
  • A baby over 3 months has a fever below 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius) and seems unusually irritable or uncomfortable1
  • A baby over 3 months has a fever higher than 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius) that does not respond to fever-reducing medication, or lasts longer than one day1
  • Your child has convulsions2,3
  • Your child acts very sick, or is lethargic and difficult to awaken2,3
  • Your child has a stiff neck,2,3 headache,3 rash,2 repeated vomiting2 or diarrhea4
  • Your child’s fever hasn’t changed in over 3 days
  • Your child has loss of appetite or stomach pain
  • Your child has a sore throat3
  • Your child has ear pain or pulling at ears3
  • Your child has pain with urination3
  • Your child has wheezing4 or difficulty breathing.3

If the doctor determines that a virus is causing your child’s fever, there is often no better treatment than time, rest, and fluids – unless the symptoms are severe.3 The doctor may also prescribe fever-reducing medications - acetaminophen/ibuprofen. These medications can help to make your child more comfortable.

Treating fever at home

Children who do not exhibit any warning signs can be treated at home for their fever.

At-home treatment may include using over-the-counter fever-reducing medications to lower a fever. Always follow the recommended dosage carefully, and talk to your pharmacist or child’s doctor before giving medicine.

You can also make your child or infant more comfortable by dressing them in loose, light clothing3, running them a lukewarm bath or bathing their forehead with a lukewarm sponge. Try not to use a cold sponge as this will have the opposite affect and actually raise their temperature.

It’s understandable to worry when your children have a fever, but rest assured in most cases they will feel better in a few days. Naturally, if you have any other concerns, it’s best to call your healthcare provider for advice and treatment.


  1. Mayo Clinic. Sick baby? Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/healthy-baby/PR00022. Accessed August 2010.
  2. UK NHS Choices. Birth to five: recognizing signs of serious illness. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/Planners/birthtofive/Pages/Recognisingsigns.aspx. Accessed August 2010.
  3. Medline Plus. U.S.National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Fever. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003090.htm. Accessed August 2010.
  4. American Academy of Family Physicians. Fever in infants and children. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/children/parents/common/common/069.html. Accessed August 2010.
  5. Eichenwald HF. Fever and antipyresis. World Health Organization Bulleting, 2003; 81: 372-374. Available at: http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/81/5/Russell0503.pdf.