Even though I've seen my three kids through everything from the flu to the chicken pox, I almost lost it the night my toddler spiked a fever of 104°F. Why was she burning up? Should I rush her to the emergency room or wait for her doctor to return my call? Fortunately, he phoned back within 30 minutes, and all it took to reduce Rosalie's fever was acetaminophen and a lukewarm bath. Soon she recovered from what proved to be a harmless virus.
There's no doubt about it: Children's fevers are scary. Ninety-one percent of parents worry that one will harm their child, according to a recent study from researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, in Baltimore. Indeed, fevers account for nearly 30 percent of visits to the pediatrician. But although a fever in a very young baby is always cause for concern, in most children a high temperature won't cause neurological damage unless it tops 105°F -- which is very rare.
"Fever is not an illness but a sign that the immune system is fighting off an infection," says Lynn Smitherman, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University. "When viruses or bacteria attack the body, white blood cells come to the rescue by producing interleukin, a hormone that raises body temperature. In effect, this rise in body heat helps kill the germs that are making your child sick." There's also some evidence that a fever helps fight illness by lowering blood levels of iron, which may be needed by germs to survive.