Fever: When to seek care

Fact Checked

Fever is not a condition but simply a symptom of various health conditions. It can also be a side effect of using certain medications. Remember that fever is one of the common reasons why parents bring their children to the emergency department.

Fever or an elevated body temperature also plays a vital role in the normal response of the body in fighting off infection. Many consider the temperature of 98.6 degrees F (37 degrees C) as the healthy body temperature, but the normal body temperature tends to vary a degree or more and fluctuates throughout the day. Remember that the temperature is lower in the morning and higher at night.

Fever among adults is not usually life-threatening unless it is 103 degrees F (39.4 degrees C) or higher. In case the fever is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, it can indicate a life-threatening condition. It is recommended to seek medical care if the symptoms include the following:

Fever or an elevated body temperature also plays a vital role in the normal response of the body in fighting off infection.
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain or tenderness in the abdominal area
  • Stiff neck that resists movement
  • Severe headache
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Rashes especially if they appear like small-sized bleeding spots beneath the skin
  • Unusual behavior and altered speech
  • Changes in the mental status, difficulty waking, confusion and extreme sleepiness

What to do if an individual has fever

The individual should be encouraged to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Children below 1 year old should be given an oral rehydration solution.

Among children, fever is measured via the rectal route with a temperature above 100.4 degrees F (38 degrees C). If the temperature was taken orally, temperature about 99.5 degrees F (37.5 degrees C) indicates fever. Remember that the rectal temperature reading is about 1 degree F higher than the oral temperature reading.

Even though rare, some children below 5 years old can end up with seizures especially if the temperature rises or falls rapidly. A seizure attack can be alarming to many parents but it will not cause any lasting damage in most children.

A doctor should be consulted or seek emergency care if the child has fever of 104 degrees F (40 degrees C) or higher. While on the way to a doctor or hospital, try to remove unnecessary clothing and cool the child down. At home, you can sponge the child using lukewarm water, immerse the child in a tub of cool water or allow the child to rest under one layer of thin towels soaked in cool water. Just remember not to let the child become chilled.

When to seek medical care

  • A child with fever below 3 months of age with a temperature higher than 100.4 degrees F (38 degrees C).
  • Body temperature higher than 102 degrees F (38.8 degrees C).
  • Child cries constantly or without relief.
  • Child appears very sick, unresponsive and uninterested with his/her surroundings along with sluggishness and will not suck on breast or bottle.
  • Stiff neck
  • Difficult to awaken
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Presence of purple-colored spots on the skin
  • Excessive drooling or difficulty swallowing
  • Difficult or painful urination
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Limping
  • Symptoms of a sore throat or earache are present
  • Swelling or redness on his/her body
  • Seizure
  • Child becomes dehydrated

Most cases linked with fever usually run their course and can be managed with ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

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