Fever treatment myths and misunderstandings are confusing parents, poll shows

Fever treatment myths and misunderstandings are confusing parents, poll shows
  • PublishedOctober 7, 2023

It’s the middle of the night and your child’s temperature is spiking. Do you reach for a washcloth to cool them down? Give them medication? Or call a doctor?

It’s a stressful scenario that parents of kids are all too familiar with.

In the heat of the moment, you go with what you know best.

Many factors contribute to parents’ beliefs about how to manage fever, says paediatrician Anthea Rhodes of the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.

Some of these could be cultural beliefs, or experiences where infectious diseases were perhaps treated differently in different parts of the world and at different times.

“A lot of those beliefs are very strongly held and passed on from generation to generation,” Dr Rhodes says.

But many of those beliefs are based on myths and misunderstandings, according to a recent survey led by Dr Rhodes and her colleagues.

They quizzed more than 2,000 parents, who provided data on 3,324 children, about their management of fever in young children, many of whom had been unwell in the past three months.

“We are surprised at just how common it is for parents to be confused or hold misbeliefs about fever, particularly given how common it is for children to experience fever,” Dr Rhodes says.

A close up of a child opening mouth to take a liquid medicine from a spoon.
Parents should only treat the symptoms, not the fever.(iStockPhoto/timsa)

How much do you know about fever?

Understanding what a fever is and medication’s role are two things that tripped up many people in the survey.

Myth 1: Fever in children is always a sign of serious illness

Nope. Not true. But if you believe this to be true, then you are in good company, as one in three parents surveyed thought the same.

Dr Rhodes says a fever is a sign that your child’s immune system is working, usually to fight off a simple viral infection.

“The fever itself has a role to play in the child getting better,” she says.

“In most cases, if a child has a fever, there will be some clues as to what’s causing it.

“They might have a runny nose or a sore throat, a sore tummy or a bit of a cough.”

Myth 2: It’s vital to lower body temperature if a child has fever

You don’t need to reach for the washcloth.

Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding parents surveyed had is the belief that it is important to always lower a child’s body temperature if they have a fever, Dr Rhodes says.

She says it’s only necessary to treat the symptoms associated with fever, like discomfort or pain, but fever itself is not dangerous.

“It is important to keep the child comfortable if they have a fever, but cooling them down is not recommended,” Dr Rhodes says.

“So we do not advise taking off clothes to keep them cool, putting them in a cold bath or shower or giving them medication just to lower the temperature.”

Myth 3: Use medication to reduce harm from fever

Dr Rhodes says parents’ focus should be on treating the symptoms, not the fever.

“A child might have a fever because they have a throat infection, but the sore throat is what is making them uncomfortable,” she says.

“In those situations, you can treat your child with paracetamol or ibuprofen bought at the chemist over the counter and using the dosing as is indicated on the bottle.”

Myth 4: The higher the temperature, the worse the illness 

The biggest confusion parents seem to have is about what a high temperature means.

Dr Rhodes says 61 per cent of parents believed a very high temperature was always a sign of severe illness.

“This is a myth,” she says.

“Children can be very unwell without a particularly high fever. And conversely, they can have a very high temperature and not be seriously unwell.

“So we would encourage parents not to focus on the number itself, but rather than how well or unwell their child appears, and interpret those signs as to seek help.”

So when should you see a doctor?

Dr Rhodes says most children with a fever can safely be cared for at home, but sometimes it can be a sign of something more serious.

She says if your child is very young and has a fever, then immediately seek help.

“Any child under three months of age with a fever should be seen by a doctor on the same day,” Dr Rhodes says.

“For older children, clues that it might be more serious include vomiting and difficulty drinking.

“Perhaps drowsiness or lethargy, a rash that might be worrying, difficulty breathing or sometimes pain that won’t go away with regular medicine.”

She says if your child has had a fever for more than a couple of days with no clear signs as to what the cause might be, then you should have them seen by a doctor too.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *