A parent gives medication to a young girl resting on a couchShare on Pinterest
Experts say medication should not be given to children for low-grade fevers. Ekaterina Goncharova/Getty Images
  • Researchers say 1 in 3 parents may be giving children fever-reducing medications when it’s not necessary.
  • Experts note that higher temperatures are one way the body fights off infections.
  • They say parents can ease children’s discomfort by putting a damp washcloth on their forehead and having the children wear light, loose clothing.

Some parents may be giving their children medication for fevers in situations where it’s really not necessary and where it may even compromise the body’s ability to fight infection.

A poll released today reached that conclusion based on 1,376 responses from parents of children ages 12 and under between August and September 2022.

The responses were gleaned from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at the University of Michigan Health.

In their findings, the researchers reported the following:

  • The majority of parents recognize a low-grade fever helps a child’s body fight off infection.
  • Some parents may not be properly measuring fevers (i.e., they are using their palm or hand to “feel” for hot forehead rather than using a thermometer).
  • Half of parents may not realize different ways of measuring temperature can lead to different results (for infants and young children, rectal temperatures are most accurate).
  • A third of parents said they would give their children fever-reducing medication for spiked temperatures below 100.4 (which isn’t recommended).
  • Half of parents would give fever medication if a fever was between 100.4 and 101.9 degrees.
  • A quarter of parents would give another dose to prevent returning fever.

“Often parents worry about their child having a fever and want to do all they can to reduce their temperature. However, they may not be aware that in general the main reason to treat a fever is just to keep their child comfortable,” said Dr. Susan Woolford, a pediatrician and the Mott Poll co-director, in a press release.

The study authors noted that while it’s clear some parents may immediately give their children medicine, it’s often better to let the fever run its course.

“Lowering a child’s temperature doesn’t typically help cure their illness any faster. In fact, a low-grade fever helps fight off the infection. There’s also the risk of giving too much medication when it’s not needed, which can have side effects,” said Woolford.

“As a pediatrician and parent, I am not surprised with the study findings,” said Dr, Gina Posner, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California.

“There is a growing dependency amongst many parents, oftentimes out of fear for their child’s health, to give medication for anything they consider a fever (any temperature above 98.6),” she told Healthline.

Dr. Edgar Navarro Garza, a pediatrician with Harbor Health, wasn’t surprised either.

“Talking from personal experience in my practice, typically, parents will be concerned about a ‘low-grade fever,’ but that is actually not considered an actual fever,” he told Healthline.

Dr. Daniel Ganjian, FAAP, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, told Healthline that these are the same findings he sees with his patients.

The benefit of this research is that with knowledge can come changes, he noted.

“When we realize that we might be over-medicating our children, it will cause us to use less medications,” Ganjian said.

This is particularly important when there is a shortage of children’s fever-reducing medications, he added.

The study authors provide several recommendations for reducing fever in children.

The suggestions included:

  • If you do use medicine, be careful about not overmedicating or combining medications (especially in young children).
  • Try alternatives to medicine for relieving a child’s discomfort.
  • Be aware of signs to call the doctor.

When to call a doctor

If you’re parenting a child under 4 months of age, any sign of fever is cause to call your healthcare provider or pediatrician.

For children 4 to 12 months, the study authors recommend parents consult with a doctor if a fever is accompanied by signs such as:

  • decreased activity
  • increased fussiness
  • decreased urine output (urinating less than average)
  • signs of pain
  • changes in behavior even when their fever is coming down

Any fevers that reach 104 degrees or fevers that remain for an extended period should prompt contact with their healthcare provider.

An extended period of fever is considered anything lasting more than 24 hours for children under 2 or more than three days for children ages 2 and older.

Ganjian recommends allowing your child’s body heat to dissipate by removing much of your child’s clothing.

“Parents think that when a child has a fever they need to bundle them up, but that just contains the heat and causes the temperature to rise higher,” he said.

“Just have your child wear a light shirt and a diaper or shorts which will help the fever become more manageable or even completely disappear,” he added.

Posner recommends these additional tips as safe and effective ways to reduce a fever:

  • Apply and reapply a cool washcloth to their child’s head.
  • Avoid over-bundling with clothing or blankets.
  • Have the child suck on a popsicle.

Ganjian says that many parents have “fever phobia.”

“As concerning it is for parents when their child is suffering a fever, it is important they know that a fever helps the body fight an infection,” said Posner. “There is no reason to be scared of fever and I always emphasize that you do treat a child if they are [feeling] miserable.”

Ganjian adds that the only reason to use a fever-reducer is if the child is uncomfortable with the fever, causing them to be fussy or making them not want to eat or sleep.

“But if your child is acting normally and eating normally, then you don’t have to treat them,” he said.

“I want to stress that acetaminophen and ibuprofen are good for pain and fever reduction,” Ganjian added. However, these same medications are not good for alleviating symptoms of cough or runny nose.

Garza noted that while he recommends a rectal thermometer for infants and toddlers younger than 18 months, he also recognizes the level of confidence for parents using this route varies.

“If parents are not comfortable taking a rectal temperature, then I recommend one that measures the forehead temperature,” he says. “It is more about the importance of always measuring temperature.”

Finally, talking to your pediatrician can help reduce uncertainty and fears around fevers in children.

“It Is always important for parents to talk with their pediatrician about the adequate doses of medication for their children,” said Garza. “In the pediatric setting, the dose of medication is weight-based and one of the reasons why the labeled dose may be an under/overdose.”