TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. - A fever is a natural part of a child's immune response. When it is functioning at its absolute best, a child's body will fight off most foreign invaders so swiftly they will have no outward effect at all. However, when necessary, a child's immune system will raise his or her temperature to create a hostile environment for that invader. It's how a healthy body functions.
Simply put, our body's first line of defense when invaded by a virus or bacteria is specialized white blood cells. A strong, healthy immune system may be able to eliminate the invaders with this first step alone. If the white blood cells fail to contain the bugs, then the brain recognizes there is an invader and raises the body temperature to assist in killing it off.
This elevated temperature will generally be just a couple of degrees, but the brain determines the degrees based on the potency of invaders and what will be necessary to eliminate the bug. If the infection is severe then the body temperature rises accordingly. For every degree the body temperature rises, the white blood cells travel twice as fast.
For all children above the age of 3 months, a fever is actually a good thing. It's a sign that their immune system is functioning properly. Although many parents will panic when their child has a temperature above 98.6° F, the reality is that children's temperature may naturally run a little higher than what many consider the norm.
Different fever grades
A low-grade fever is anything between 100° F and 102.2° F. This level of fever is beneficial and will assist in defending the body from most bugs that a child will be exposed to.
A moderate-grade fever is between 102.2° F and 104.5° F. This temperature is still considered beneficial; if a child's body has reached this temperature, it's what's needed to kill whatever bacteria or virus their body is attempting to fight.
A high-fever is a fever greater than 104.5° F. This fever will cause your child some discomfort and result in crankiness. Generally indicative of a bacterial infection, this fever means that the body is fighting something a little more serious than the common cold. While it will not cause brain damage or any other harm to a child, it is wise to seek assistance from a medical provider.
A serious fever is one that is at or above 106° F; this fever can be harmful. Seek immediate assistance from a medical provider for any fever above 104.5 F.
Can a fever be dangerous?
Fevers that are caused by the body's immune system are not dangerous, and the brain will control the body temperature and not allow it to get so high as to cause harm. While it can be frightening to have a child running a moderate to high fever, it is simply their body doing what it was designed to do. The only body temperature that can actually cause brain damage is 108° F.
What about fever reducers? Since it is a very rare fever that can actually cause any kind of harm to a child, the best response is to let it run its course; most fevers will resolve themselves in 24 to 72 hours. Parents should be aware that fevers will naturally spike a little in the late afternoon and evening, so a slight increase in temperature during these times is not a cause for alarm.
A wait-and-watch approach should be recommended, rather than turning to over-the-counter medicines. The risks associated with these chemicals far outweigh any potential danger from the fever.
The typical over-the-counter drug is going to contain acetaminophen (Tylenol), which may cause liver damage. Other fever reducers include ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), which can cause stomach upset, and aspirin has been associated with Reye's syndrome when given to children. Reye's syndrome is a combination of symptoms including nausea, vomiting, confusion, headache and/or nightmares.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend fever-reducing drugs: "Fever is not an infection." Even in cases of high temperatures, the AAP says, "Fevers generally do not need to be treated with medication unless your child is uncomfortable or has a history of febrile convulsions. The fever may be important in helping your child fight the infection."
The best response to a fever below 104.5° F (40° C) for children over the age of 3 years is lots of rest and clear fluids. Since fevers may cause the child to sweat, parents need to be aware that they will lose sodium and water, which must be replaced with proper fluids. This does not include Gatorade or other sugary sports drinks.
When to seek help
Parents should contact the child's health care provider right away if any of the following occur:
• A child younger than 3 months is running any grade of fever.
• A child between 3 months and 3 years has a temperature above 102.2° F and appears ill (it should be noted that even teething may cause a slight increase in temperature).
• A child of any age has a temperature over 104.5° F (40° C).
Additionally, since dehydration is a potential side effect of fever, watch your child for the following: dry mouth, lack of urine or lack of wet diapers, dry skin, irritability, fatigue, or with an older child, dizziness. These signs of dehydration may be a concern and the child should be seen by a health care professional, especially if they are unable to keep down clear fluids.
It is important to note that in children under the age of 5 years, a fever can also lead to a seizure, known as a febrile seizure. However, while this can be frightening, it will typically have no lasting effects.
- Rodney Shoemaker, DC, works with Incline Chiropractic Natural Health Center, located at 894 Southwood Blvd. in Incline Village. Learn more at inclinechiropractic.com.