It’s never nice to see your child unwell or suffering.
For many parents, fever is a warning sign that cannot be ignored. Many modern parents reach for the medicine cabinet as soon as their child spikes even a low fever.
Should we be using paracetamol and ibuprofen to prevent fevers in babies and young children, or are we at risk of overmedicating our kids?
Modern medicine is an amazing thing and has saved countless lives, but is it something we should turn to when it isn’t really necessary?
And, more importantly, as a parent, how do you know when it really is necessary?
What Does Fever Do?
Fever actually has an important role to play in helping your child to fight infection. It’s one of the body’s natural defences against infection. Many bacteria can only survive at normal body temperature, so by raising your child’s temperature, the body is able to kill off the bacteria that are making your child poorly. Clever, right? By using paracetamol or ibuprofen (or both) to bring down your child’s fever, you allow the bacteria to remain active and could be lengthening the duration of your child’s illness.
Perhaps your grandparents or parents would say they were put to bed with a hot wattle bottle and plenty of blankets to ‘sweat out’ a fever. While this seems a little over the top, there may be something they knew which science is only just beginning to understand.
Recent research has found the hotter our body temperature is, a key immune defence speeds up, fighting infections faster.
Small increases in temperature (such as during a fever) will trigger the speeding up of a cellular ‘clock’ which controls our response to infections. When the body temperature is 34C the clock slows down, but at temperatures higher than the normal 37C the clock speeds up.
So reducing a fever may be working against your child’s normal immune system in many ways.
What Is ‘Fever Phobia’
Fever phobia refers to the practice of medicating against fevers unnecessarily. Many parents believe fever itself to be a medical illness, when in fact it is simply one way the body fights off illness. It is believed that many parents medicate with paracetamol unnecessarily, to reduce fever, and this is something the scientific community has been warning us about for years.
What The Experts Say
So, what do the experts say about childhood fever?
The Australian College of Nursing states: “Fever is a normal physiological response to infection and it will not place a generally healthy child at harm. There is well-documented evidence to show that fever slows the growth and replication of bacteria and viruses, and it is not always beneficial to administer medication such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that paracetamol and ibuprofen should be used to manage the well-being of the child, not simply to bring down a fever. “Parents should focus on the general well-being of the child, his/her activity, observing the child for signs of serious illness and maintaining appropriate fluid intake.”
A fever itself is not usually anything to worry about. Of course, if your child seems distressed or very unwell, paracetamol or ibuprofen might help, but it is not usually necessary to give these medications simply for a fever.
As a parent, it can be difficult to know the right thing to do, and second-guessing yourself can be worrying. This is one of those decisions where you should learn to trust your gut; you know when something isn’t right with your child. If you have a perfectly happy child with a slightly elevated temperature, there is no need to offer a dose of medicine to bring the temperature down.
What The Science Says
A 2011 study into the use of infant paracetamol found that almost a third of babies aged under three months had been prescribed an actual or potential overdose. About 50% of all parents do not understand dosage instructions for paracetamol, which increases the risk of young children being given an overdose of medication.
This is complicated by the fact that there are many different brands of infant medication available over the counter, each with different dosage instructions. It easy for sleep deprived parents to give the wrong dosage. Many parents also use paracetamol and ibuprofen before consulting a doctor.
A 2011 study carried out by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, the University of Oslo and the University of Bristol found that babies given paracetamol within the first six months of life were almost a third more likely to develop childhood asthma.
How To Treat A Fever
Remember, a fever by itself is nothing to worry about. If your child seems otherwise happy and healthy, a fever is simply the body’s way of fighting infection. Make sure your child is well hydrated – electrolytes are a great way to help boost hydration. For a breastfed baby, this could simply mean increasing the number of feeds you offer throughout the day. Hydration is important to help keep your baby’s fluid levels up.
You could also try to make a child more comfortable by dressing her lightly or using thin bed sheets in a warm environment. A bedroom temperature of around 18C is perfect; you might need to open a window to bring the room temperature down slightly in the warmer months.
If the fever is accompanied by other symptoms such as distress or generally feeling unwell, you can offer paracetamol to help your child feel more comfortable. To be sure of giving the correct dosage, always double check how much medicine your child should have and how frequently. Be careful to store the medicine safely, and keep it our of your child’s reach so that it cannot be ingested by mistake.
When To Seek Help
You should contact your doctor for immediate medical help if your child is:
- Under three months old, and has a temperature of 38C or above
- Aged between three and six months, and has a temperature of 39C or above
If your child appears floppy or drowsy, you should seek urgent medical assistance.