Q. My 18-month-old gets a lot of fevers. When should I be concerned, and is there anything I can do to help her feel better?
A. A fever is not an illness in itself -- it's the symptom of an underlying problem (usually an infection), just as a car's engine light acts as an alarm signal. And not every one is necessarily serious.
A higher fever doesn't always indicate a sicker child. Minor viral illnesses may produce a high temperature (104°F to 105°F), while some serious bacterial infections -- like meningitis -- may cause a lower one (101°F to 102°F). Also, a fever that spikes high but subsides quickly is usually less of a worry than a mild fever that doesn't come down easily.
The best way to know when to be concerned: Watch your child, not the thermometer, for increasing signs of illness. (One exception: If an infant 3 months or younger has a rectal temperature above 100.5°F for more than eight hours, you should call the doctor right away, whether or not she shows any other signs of illness.) Get to know the typical progression of her fevers, and pay attention to any deviation from their typical course. For example, if your child never runs high fevers and then one day does, that's much more serious than if her temperature usually reaches 104°F with a normal cold.
Most fevers will go down within a few days, but in the meantime, here are some ways to help your child feel more comfortable:
And, of course, if your child's temperature continues to rise over a few days and she gets progressively sicker, call your pediatrician.