A high temperature or fever in children can be caused by an infection. This article covers symptoms to look out for, information on ear infections, scarlet fever and more.
What is a fever and what causes it in babies?
A ‘fever’ is when the body’s temperature is higher than it normally would be (above 37.5°C/99.5°F).
In the early stages of fever, a child may have a raised temperature but complain that they feel cold and look pale. They may also complain that they have a headache.
Although having a fever can be uncomfortable for children it is normally caused by an infection and is actually a sign of a robust immune system. As well as stimulating the body’s natural defence system, by raising the inner-core temperature, a fever makes it harder for the bacteria and viruses that cause infection to survive.
Most fevers will clear up by themselves; the information below highlights how you can help your child feel more comfortable.
What to do if your child has a fever
Check your baby's temperature using a thermometer
When measured with an ear thermometer or under the tongue normal body temperature is about 37°C (98.4°F). However, it is safer and easier to measure a baby’s temperature under their arm; 36.4°C (97.4°F) is normal, though this may vary slightly. Forehead thermometer strips are not sufficiently accurate.
What is a high temperature for a baby?
The NHS recommends parents always contact a health professional if:
- Your baby is under three months old and their temperature is 38°C (101°F) or higher.
- Your baby is aged three to six months and their temperature is 39°C (102°F) or higher.
- Your baby is older than six months and their temperature is above 40°C (104-105°F).
- Your child has other signs of illness as well as a raised temperature.
- Your child remains feverish after a dose of paracetamol and other attempts to cool them down described below.
If you are worried, speak to your GP or your GP’s out-of-hours service, otherwise call NHS Direct: 0845 4647 or 111.
If you're still concerned, or if your GP or out-of-hours service can’t come quickly enough, you can take your child straight to the Accident and Emergency (A&E) department of your nearest hospital. Your instincts about your child are important; you know your child better than anyone, so you’re more likely to know when something is wrong.
Try and keep your child comfortable
- Remove excess clothes and give them fluids such as milk (whatever they normal drink, such as breastmilk, formula or dairy milk), water or diluted juice. This will cool your child and help to prevent them becoming dehydrated.
- You can cover your baby or child with a sheet if you think it would make them more comfortable but not with blankets or anything that may make them hotter.
- Keep the room well aired and at a comfortable temperature (about 18°C/65°F) by adjusting the heating or opening a window.
- If your child is distressed or in pain, as well as having a fever, you could give the recommended dose of paracetamol syrup. This will help to reduce your child’s temperature and pain.
Aspirin should not be given to children under 16 years old as there is a small risk that it could set off a rare condition called Reye’s syndrome, which can cause brain and liver damage.
Frequently asked questions
What causes a fever? Could it be an ear or a chest infection?
Fever is usually caused by an infection, such as an earache or a sore throat. For babies, moderate fever is not usually harmful, but should be monitored carefully in case it develops into something more serious.
Could a fever be a sign of something more serious like meningitis?
Yes, a fever may be a sign of another condition such as meningitis. It is important to monitor your baby or child for other symptoms, such as a severe headache, and if you are in any doubt, seek medical advice. Read more about the signs and symptoms of meningitis.
Can I give paracetamol syrup to my baby?
If your baby is under three months old its not generally recommended to give paracetamol syrup, unless advised by a GP. If they are older than three months then you could give them the recommended dose.
Could I sponge my baby or child down to cool them?
No, it is not recommended to sponge a baby or child down to cool them. It is important not to cool them too quickly.
Is it true a fever or high temperature can cause a febrile seizure?
Yes, febrile seizures (sometimes known as febrile convulsions) in babies can be caused by a high temperature. This is because the part of the body that regulates the temperature is not fully developed yet. As a child gets older, their body will get better at regulating their body temperature and the likelihood of febrile seizures will decrease. Find out how to treat a febrile seizure here.
What is Scarlet fever?
Scarlet fever is a bacterial illness with a pinky-red rash that feels like sandpaper and may be itchy. Other symptoms can include a high temperature, flushed face and red, swollen tongue. It can be treated easily, but is very contagious so keep your child at home and speak to your GP if you suspect it.
There is no evidence that scarlet fever is dangerous for pregnant women, but they should speak to a healthcare professional if they have had contact with someone who has it.
Do I have to seek medical advice every time my baby or child has a fever?
No, fevers can be quite common in babies and young children so it often isn’t necessary to seek medical advice. You should seek medical advice if their temperature is higher than the temperatures outlined above or if you are worried about your baby or child’s condition.
NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.
NCT and the British Red Cross run first aid courses for babies.
NHS Choices has information on how to spot signs of serious illness in your baby or child and has further information on meningitis.