No medicine cabinet is without some sort of drug that can bring down a fever. Fever creates fear in parents perhaps because of its legacy in accompanying many life-threatening illnesses in the past. Fever is not an illness, just a sign that the body is fighting one and it often changes a child's behaviour, energy levels and appetite so that the body is better equipped with dealing with the illness. It’s the body's way of saying: “If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen” to invading "bugs". This heat wave not only makes them uncomfortably hot under the collar, it also starves them of iron and glucose, which they need to thrive.
But our natural healing heat does more than just make it unbearably hot for illness-inducing invaders, it simultaneously revs up the body’s immune system’s fighter cells, which only operate under tropical conditions.
When to worry
Dispelling "fever phobia" does not mean that a prolonged increase in temperature should be ignored or left to run its course. Other dangerous causes of an increase in temperature may have nothing to do with having a response to infection and should be taken seriously. Examples are heat stroke, side effects of drugs and rheumatoid arthritis.
Getting into a heated debate
Here are a few myth-busting fever facts from Professor of Paediatrics, Barton D. Schmidtt:
MYTH: All fevers are bad for children.
FACT: Fevers turn on the body's immune system. Fevers are one of the body's protective mechanisms. Most fevers between 38°C and 40°C are good for sick children, help the body fight infection and lessen the duration of an acute episode. The exception is babies less than 3 months of age. They should be seen by a healthcare provider right away.
MYTH: Fevers cause brain damage or fevers over 40°C are dangerous.
FACT: Fevers with infections don't cause brain damage. Only body temperatures over 42°C can cause brain damage. The body temperature goes this high only with extreme environmental temperatures (for example, if a child is confined in a closed car in hot weather).
MYTH: Anyone can have a febrile seizure (seizure triggered by fever).
FACT: Only 4% of children have a febrile seizure.
MYTH: Febrile seizures are harmful.
FACT: Febrile seizures are scary to watch, but they usually stop within 5 minutes. They cause no permanent harm. Children who have had febrile seizures do not have a greater risk for developmental delays, learning disabilities, or seizures without fever.
MYTH: All fevers need to be treated with fever medicine.
FACT: Fevers need to be treated only if they cause discomfort. Usually that means fevers over 39°C to 39.4°C.
MYTH: Without treatment, fevers will keep going higher.
FACT: Wrong. Because the brain has a thermostat, fevers from infection usually top out at 39.4°C to 40°.
MYTH: With treatment, fevers should come down to normal.
FACT: With treatment, fevers usually come down 1.1° to 1.7°C.
MYTH: If the fever doesn't come down (if you can't "break the fever"), the cause is serious.
FACT: Fevers that don't respond to fever medicine can be caused by viruses or bacteria. Whether the medicine works or not doesn't relate to the seriousness of the infection. How your child looks is what’s important.
MYTH: Once the fever comes down with medicines, it should stay down.
FACT: The fever will normally last for 2 or 3 days with most viral infections. Therefore, when the fever medicine wears off, the fever will return and need to be treated again. The fever will go away and not return once your child’s body overpowers the virus (usually by the fourth day). If a fever persists to the fifth day it is time to see the doctor.
MYTH: If the fever is high, the cause is serious.
FACT: If the fever is high, the cause may or may not be serious. If your child looks very sick, the cause is more likely to be serious.
MYTH: The exact number of the temperature is very important.
FACT: How your child looks is what's important, not the exact temperature.
MYTH: Temperatures between 37.1°C and 37.8°C are low-grade fevers.
FACT: These temperatures are normal variations. The body’s temperature normally changes throughout the day. It peaks in the late afternoon and evening. An actual low-grade fever is 37.8°C to 39°C.