It's easy to forget that fever is one of the body's natural ways of fighting illness and infection. When the number on the thermometer rises a degree or two, we tend to panic and start mumbling about aspirin versus ibuprofen versus acetaminophen. One's better for headaches, one for fever, right? RIGHT?!
By the time you've figured out which does what the fever has spiked another degree and you've diagnosed yourself or your child with an incurable illness through a random Google search. So you grab your keys and head straight to the nearest ER.
But is that wise?
Given the discomfort of leaving the house sick or with a sick child, the answer is not always yes. In fact, with an otherwise healthy person, the answer is most likely no. However, there are clear-cut signs and symptoms that indicate you should seek immediate medical attention.
Fever in Babies and Children
Relax, mom and dad. When children run a fever, it's usually the sign of a harmless viral infection and only rarely (about 1 in 100) indicates a serious illness. In fact, often the absolute number on the thermometer isn't as important as how the child is acting and whether or not there are accompanying symptoms.
Therefore, the No. 1 rule is to trust your intuition, and whenever in doubt take your child to the ER.
If your child is running a high fever, indicated by the numbers below, see a doctor right away, even if there are no other signs or symptoms.
Babies under 3 months – 100.4ºF or higher
Kids 3 months to 3 years – 102.2ºF
Children 3 to 17 years – 102ºF for two or more days
If your child's fever doesn't meet the guidelines above, take note of these additional signs that medical intervention might be necessary.
Childhood illnesses – are there creepy-crawly kid bugs going around your neighborhood or your child's school? If so, and you think your child may have caught them, consult a doctor to see if he is contagious or needs treatment.
Tummy ache – all kids complain of stomachaches from time to time, but you should seek treatment for severe pain, pain that persists for 24 or more hours, pain that is localized to one particular area, or pain accompanied by vomiting or high fever.
Trouble breathing – a little cough or cold is probably nothing to worry about, but irregular breathing, wheezing, severe coughing or crackly sounds could be serious.
Seizure – seizures triggered by fever can be frightening and are definitely a reason to visit the ER, but rest assured that most are harmless. During a seizure caused by fever, a child's muscles cramp, making her arms and legs twitch.
Other warning signs – these may be subtle but can help you determine if your child is seriously ill, especially in babies who are too young to speak. They include unresponsiveness; inactivity and sleepiness; very pale, ashy, patchy or bluish skin; a reddish rash; weak or constant crying or fussiness; loss of appetite; muscle weakness; ear pain; and stiff neck.
Fever in Adults 18+
Below 102ºF – you should rest and drink plenty of fluids. No treatment is needed unless the fever is accompanied by a severe headache, stiff neck, difficulty breathing, behavior change, severe pain or other unusual symptoms.
Above 102ºF – be sure to seek treatment if the fever:
- Doesn't respond to medication
- Is consistently 104ºF or higher
- Lasts longer than three days
- Is accompanied by
- Breathing problems
- Vomiting or severe stomach pain
- Headache and confusion
- Severe back pain or stiff neck
- Occurs after surgery and you are worried about possible infection
Acetaminophen vs. Ibuprofen
According to the Cleveland Clinic, studies suggest ibuprofen is the champ at fighting fever, pain and inflammation while acetaminophen takes the prize for arthritis and headache relief. To maximize the effects of both and minimize the risks of taking too much of either, consider alternating between the two.
For most fevers, chicken soup and a little TLC is the right prescription. But if intuition or any of the symptoms above urge you to go ahead and grab those car keys, look to one of our many Medical City ER locations across North Texas. With average wait times posted online, if you do have an emergency, you can spend less time waiting and more time on the moments that matter most.
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