Understanding fevers: what to do when the temperature rises

Kinderling News & Features

When your child first gets a fever, it can be really scary.

Elysia Thornton-Benko is a GP at Bondi Road Doctors, and she boils down what you need to know about fevers so you stay cool when the mercury rises.

What’s happening in your body when you have a fever?

“We define a fever as a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius and above,” Elysia says.

“Basically, it’s your body’s immune system responding to something. It’s actually a survival mechanism,” Elysia continues. “Most of the time, it's responding to an infection. It means the body is trying to fight the infection and that’s why the body temperature is rising.”

Sometimes a fever could be something else, like overheating or altered temperature regulation in your body, for example from heat stroke or weather exposure.

Listen to Elysia on Kinderling Conversation:

What’s a dangerous temperature?

Elysia says this question is not as clear cut as you’d think.

“Experts all say that a fever of itself is not dangerous. However, obviously if the temperature is 40 degrees or above and the child is incredibly unwell, take that very seriously and go to the hospital,” she explains. “But a fever in itself doesn’t necessarily need to be a panic station.”

There are a couple of differences to note between newborns and older children.

Babies

In the first three to four months of life, if a baby has a fever of 38 degrees or above, you need to visit the emergency department. While this isn’t a high-grade fever for anybody else, for newborns it’s concerning.

“It does mean it could be a more serious underlying infection, because their immune systems are more immature, so a 38 in a newborn baby could be similar to a 40 in you or I,” Elysia explains.

Infants and small children

In young kids, a temperature of 38 degrees means “they probably do have an underlying infection. It does mean something’s going on, there’s some underlying increase in the immune system,” Elysia adds.

She says that you should observe your child. It’s key you give them fluids to drink so they stay hydrated. They might go off their food, which is not a big issue in the short term. As long as the child is passing urine, playing, happy enough in themselves and doesn't have a new rash, then you don’t actually need to treat a low fever.

However, if the child is uncomfortable, and they do have symptoms, then you need to decide if it’s bad enough to see a medical professional, or if you give over-the-counter children’s paracetamol and monitor them carefully to see their response.

What's the most important thing to know about fevers?

“Don’t treat the number,” Elysia advises. “Don’t treat the fever, treat the child.”

For example, if a child’s temperature is only slightly above normal, but they look very pale, unwell, and lethargic, you would take that very seriously and seek immediate medical help.

Or in another example, a different child might have the same temperature, but look completely healthy and they’re eating and drinking normally.

Elysia says to trust your instinct. “It’s putting the pieces altogether, but ultimately looking at the child. Sometimes we feel that we have to give medication, but it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.”

If in doubt, always seek medical help.