High temperature in children

High temperatures in children are usually harmless. A child with a high temperature can usually be cared for at home. A high temperature can have a wide range of causes – the important thing is to recognize the signs of conditions that require medical treatment.

At a glance

  • Children are classed as having a high temperature from a body temperature of 38.5 degrees; infants under 3 months from 38 degrees.
  • High temperatures in children are usually harmless and pass within 2 to 3 days.
  • A child with a high temperature can usually be cared for at home.
  • About 1 in every 100 children with a high temperature has a serious condition that requires medical treatment.
  • High temperatures rarely exceed 41 degrees and are only harmful on exceptions.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

High temperature (fever) in children: one hand holding a thermometer, baby lying in a bed in the background.

Why do children get high temperatures?

Children react to pathogens with a high temperature more often and quicker than adults. They are classed as having a high temperature from a body temperature of 38.5 degrees or above – infants up to 3 months from just 38 degrees.

In children, temperatures of 38.5 degrees or more are considered high. In babies under three months, 38 degrees or more.

Many parents become concerned about their children when their temperature rises. High temperatures are one of the most common reasons for children being taken to a medical practice or emergency department. But most children simply have a harmless viral infection. They can be cared for at home and return to full health within 3 days. Their body fights off the viruses of its own accord.

Only about 1 in 100 children with a high temperature has a serious condition that requires medical treatment. This is usually caused by a bacterial infection, for example of the lungs.

What symptoms does a child with a high temperature have?

You can often see if children have a high temperature. Typical signs include a red face and looking tired. Their eyes can be glazed and their skin pale. A hot forehead or neck can also indicate a high temperature. Some children cry easily or lose their appetite.

A visit to a medical practice or emergency department is advisable if:

  • the high temperature exceeds 39 degrees (or 38 degrees in the case of infants).
  • the high temperature recurs periodically or repeatedly.
  • the high temperature lasts for more than 3 days.
  • the child has a febrile seizure.
  • the child has a stiff neck or seems apathetic, restless or confused.
  • the child vomits or has diarrhea or abdominal pain.
  • the child has a rash.
  • the child refuses to drink anything for a prolonged period.
  • the child’s condition has deteriorated since last visiting the doctor.

What causes high temperatures in children?

Several things can cause a child’s body temperature to rise despite not actually being ill. For example, being particularly upset, running around a lot or being very warmly dressed. One reason for this is that children sweat less and later when warm than adults. A baby can also get a high temperature when teething.

A high temperature is usually caused by pathogens though and is a sign that certain metabolic and immune system processes are working at a higher speed than usual. This is the body’s way of fending off pathogens. In other words, a high temperature is not an illness.

There are several things that can cause a high temperature:

  • Viruses or bacteria: these can lead to a common cold, middle ear infection, a urinary tract infection or gastroenteritis. They can also cause typical childhood diseases such as measles, rubella, scarlet fever or chickenpox.
  • A vaccination: because the child’s immune system is developing antibodies to fight the pathogens that the vaccine should later provide protection against.
  • Dehydration: children get a high temperature because they have not drunk enough and are dehydrated. This can also happen if a child suffers from a severe bout of vomiting and has diarrhea.
  • Sunburn, sunstroke or skin conditions such as urticaria (hives).
Causes of high temperature (fever) in children include viruses, bacteria, vaccinations, dehydration, sunburn, serious illnesses.

Severe conditions like pneumonia, meningitis, appendicitis, or an infection of joints or bone marrow are rarely the cause.

Very rarely, high temperatures are caused by metabolic disorders, rheumatic disorders or allergic reactions to food or medication.

If a child gets a high temperature after traveling to a far-flung destination, even if it was several weeks ago, it is important to notify a doctor. Targeted testing can be used to determine if the child could have become infected with a pathogen while traveling and if so, with which one.

How do high temperatures progress in children?

Many parents worry that a very high temperature can be life threatening. However, a high temperature only causes damage on real exceptions, such as if it exceeds 41 degrees. Such cases are extremely rare though.

A high temperature can lead to dehydration. Medical attention is needed if the child refuses to drink. It may also be required if the following symptoms of dehydration persist:

  • An infant has a sunken fontanelle.
  • The mouth and lips are dry.
  • The eyes are sunken.
  • The child has no tears.
  • The child looks ill.

A high temperature can sometimes result in a febrile seizure, particularly in children between the ages of 3 months and 5 years. A simple febrile seizure can be frightening but is usually harmless and only lasts for a few minutes. Despite this, it is still advisable to visit a doctor following a febrile seizure.

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How are high temperatures in children detected?

Fever? Child looking exhausted lying on a couch and clutching its head.

Healthy children have a body temperature of between 36.5 and 37.5 degrees. This changes over the course of the day: in the evening, the temperature is usually 0.5 degrees higher than in the morning. An elevated temperature can vary between 37.5 and 38.5 degrees.

A high temperature is anything over 38.5 degrees or over 38 degrees in the case of babies under 3 months.

There are several ways to measure body temperature. The most important thing in relation to young children is that their temperature is measured quickly – and with as little dressing, undressing and restraint as possible. Often, parents start by placing a hand on their child’s forehead or neck to see if it feels hot.

The body temperature can be precisely measured with a thermometer – ideally three times a day. Rectal measurements using a digital thermometer are the most reliable. Many parents also use an ear or forehead thermometer. Measurements should only be taken in the mouth or under the armpits once the child is at least 4 years old. How long a measurement takes depends on where the temperature is being measured and with what kind of thermometer. The product instructions will provide more precise information.

Further information on topics relating to high temperatures in children, such as how to correctly measure a child’s temperature, can be found at gesundheitsinformation.de.

How are high temperatures in children treated?

It is often unnecessary to use anything to lower a high temperature.

However, treatment with antipyretic drugs such as paracetamol or ibuprofen in suppository or liquid form can be useful:

  • in the case of a high temperature above 39.5 degrees.
  • if the child feels extremely unwell.

Dosage information can be found on the package insert. The dosage depends on the child’s age and weight. If the child’s temperature does not fall within 1 to 4 hours despite medication, a doctor should be consulted.

The active ingredient acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) is not suitable for children and adolescents because it can cause a rare but dangerous side effect known as Reye’s syndrome.

Home remedies such as cold compresses or tepid baths are popular but only cool the exterior of the body. If these make the child feel better, there is no harm in using them but it is unclear whether they actually help reduce a high temperature.

A child with a high temperature should not be dressed too warmly. Otherwise, the heat may be unable to escape from the body.

What else can you do if a child has a high temperature?

Most children with a high temperature can be well-cared-for at home. There is no reason not to do this if:

  • there are no signs of a serious condition.
  • a doctor has diagnosed the child with a harmless infection.

Children with a high temperature need plenty of fluid. It is therefore important for them to drink regularly – even if still being breastfed. Children have a great feel of what is good for them. It therefore helps to focus on their needs and ask them things like what they would like to eat or drink.

Children may play all day despite having a high temperature. As long as they are not running around wildly, this is absolutely fine. However, children with a high temperature cannot go to playgroups, nursery or school. This applies even if they seem otherwise healthy as they may infect other children.

Children with a high temperature almost always recover of their own accord. The best remedies are usually time, rest and loving care.

In cooperation with the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (Institut für Qualität und Wirtschaftlichkeit im Gesundheitswesen) (IQWiG).

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