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What to Do When Your Child Has a Fever

As every parent knows, fever in children is no fun for anyone. My 4-year-old recently had a fever, and all the conflicting advice I was hearing about what to do about it was enough to leave me feeling like a hot mess. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to hit up two experts in their fields for the latest skinny on fevers, and here's what I found out:

Fevers Aren't All That Bad

Fever in children isn't a disease that requires treatment. It's the body's natural way of healing itself.

"Contrary to popular belief, you can rarely tell the severity of the illness by the height of the fever," says Charles Shubin, M.D., Director of Pediatrics at Mercy FamilyCare, a division of Family Health Centers of Baltimore.

According to Dr. Shubin, with some exceptions, such as newborns, fevers are nothing to fear. Febrile seizures, which are convulsions that some small children experience with fevers, can be frightening for parents but they're generally harmless.

What Should You Do When Your Child Has a Fever?

In most cases, monitoring a fever isn't going to change the course of treatment. The key is keeping your child comfortable.

So Grandma had it right with this one. Dr. Shubin says the best thing you can you do is encourage rest and plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.

"I do not treat fever," Dr. Shubin says. "I do treat kids."

Dorene Petersen, Dip.NT, Dip.Acu, RH (AHG), President and CEO of American College of Healthcare Sciences and current chair of the Aromatherapy Registration Council, suggests offering an infusion of herbs at the first sign of a child going "off color," or when he appears listless, isn't sleeping well, is irritable or has a change in appetite. She recommends making a standard herbal infusion by pouring a pint of boiling water over an ounce of yarrow (Achillia millefolium) or catnip (Nepeta cataria) and steeping for at least 20 minutes. Then strain and either freeze the infusion into popsicles or soak a couple washcloths to freeze and apply to the forehead or neck. Add chamomile or juice to appeal to kids' tastes.

Although the use of essential oils to promote wellness within the home is gaining popularity, Petersen cautions that they're potent substances that should be administered with care.

"Just as you wouldn't give a child an adult dose of Tylenol, it's the same with essential oils," Petersen says. "You have to reduce the dosage accordingly, and some are not desirable for children."

Trust Mother Nature

"Mother Nature knows what she's doing," Dr. Shubin says. "Kids will rest when they need to."

Dr. Shubin suggests going along with what seems to make your child comfortable—even a little TV (gasp!) is okay.

Most schools and childcare centers have policies in place that require children to be fever free for 24 hours, without the help of fever-reducing medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, before returning. However, Dr. Shubin says that contagion isn't the issue, but rather a child won't benefit from attending school when he's sick. By the time they exhibit symptoms, they've already exposed others to the illness.

For more information on when to keep your child home, check out "Is My Child Too Sick for School?"

When to Call the Doctor

Dr. Shubin says newborns' temperature should be monitored rectally to get a core temperature because skin temperature can be affected by external factors, like the environment. If your newborn has a fever of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or greater, she needs to be seen by a doctor immediately.

In older children, Dr. Shubin recommends calling your child's doctor if you have concerns so the physician can decide whether it's worth dragging a sick kid out of the house.

For those going the naturopathic route, Petersen suggests seeking the advice from a trusted naturopathic physician or medical provider who is familiar with herbs and essential oils if you don't see results within 72 hours or if the illness worsens within that timeframe. She says that once an illness has progressed beyond 72 hours, it can become increasingly difficult to alleviate with herbs and oils.

"I don't like to see a fever going on for days," Petersen says. "The whole idea is for the fever to do its job, to break and for the child to recover."

The bottom line: trust your gut and seek support anytime you have concerns.