What is it?
The human body is very clever and a fever is its way of fighting an infection. The extra heat creates a more hostile environment for bacteria and viruses. In children under five, any temperature over 37.5°C is considered a fever; in the children over five, a fever is anything above 38°C.
You'll probably notice if your baby or child has a fever as soon as you touch them or pick them up, because their skin will feel hot. All manner of things can cause it: colds, flu, teething, vaccinations and any type of infection will kick up the body's thermostat. But a fever can feel very unpleasant and, in young babies, it may require medical attention to ensure there's nothing nasty at the root of it.
The NHS advises that children under the age of three months should be seen by a doctor if their temperature becomes higher than 38°C; children under six months should be seen if their temperature gets beyond 39°C. For children older than that, a fever (unaccompanied by any other symptoms) can often be managed at home. Occasionally, a baby or child with a high temperature will have a febrile convulsion. While undoubtedly terrifying to witness, these minor seizures, most common in children under three, are rarely harmful.
What can I do?
Arm yourself with a thermometer if you haven't already. Although it is easy to tell if your baby is hotter than normal (normal is generally considered somewhere around 36.4°C, although it varies a little from person to person), it can be important to know just how hot they are. Digital thermometers are accurate and easy to use – simply place into the armpit for a minute or two and wait for the beep.
If you have a young baby whose temperature goes above the safe limit (see above) take them to see a doctor as soon as you can. Otherwise, there are a few things you can do to make them feel more comfortable.
If your child has a fever, but is displaying no other symptoms (i.e. no fussiness, they are otherwise quite perky and do not seem to be in any pain) don't reach straight for the bottle of liquid paracetamol, or ibuprofen.
This is because a fever is the body's natural way of fighting infection. To give them medicine only for the sake of reducing a fever, might actually elongate the process their body is wanting to go through to eliminate some minor ailment.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends that the medicines "should not routinely to used with the sole aim of reducing body temperature in children with fever who are otherwise well".
So instead, just strip them down to their nappy or pants and vest to help regulate their temperature. Despite what your grandmother might have told you about keeping warm when you're ill, wrapping up is not advisable – it simply raises the body temperature even further. You might also have read advice about sponging to reduce a fever – however this might feel almost painful to your child when their temperature is soaring.
If your child does have symptoms besides a high temperature, do of course take them to the doctor. You should also give them the correct dosage of liquid paracetamol or ibuprofen (always check the instructions on the bottle and never give them extra). The medicine will reduce their fever and also relieve the aches and pains being caused by their illness.
A common symptom of a fever is not wanting to eat or drink. While you should not be overly worried about a decrease in appetite (despite the instinct that tells you to panic when your child misses a meal!), it is essential that your child doesn't become dehydrated, so you might need to work quite hard, continually offering sips of cool water, juice or milk, or by breastfeeding little and often.
If you are concerned they are not taking in enough fluid, despite your best efforts (dry nappies, tearless, crying, dry mouth, sunken eyes and sunken fontanelle all signify a worrying level of dehydration), call your doctor immediately.
It's also normal for a poorly child to need extra sleep – however, if they are very lethargic, seem floppy, or you are unable to wake them, seek medical attention straight away. Similarly, if their fever is accompanied by an unusual rash, or cold hands and feet, you should call a doctor without delay.
Sometimes, the best advice is to trust your instincts and if you feel something's not right, get your baby or child checked out – no medical professional will think badly of you for doing so.
If you feel unsure about what to do, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47 and a nurse will offer advice.