Fever in children

If your child has a fever, it means their body temperature is above normal.

Around 37ºC is normal.

A fever is usually a normal response of a child’s immune system to a virus or bacterial infection. Most healthy children can tolerate a fever well.

A digital thermometer is the best type to use to get an accurate temperature reading.

Fever ranges and symptoms

38–38.9°C – mild fever
With a mild fever your child might have flushed cheeks, be less active and feel warm when you touch them.

39–39.9°C – high fever
With a high fever your child may have flushed cheeks, be less active, be fussy, might not want to eat or drink, and feel hot when you touch them.

40°C or higher – very high fever
With a very high fever your child will have flushed cheeks and feel very hot to touch.  They will be fussy, refusing food and drink, and will be very listless (lacking in energy).

When to see your doctor

  • A baby under three months with a fever – even a mild one – must be taken to the doctor.
  • A baby between three and six months with a high or very high fever (anything over 39 ºC) must be taken to the doctor.
  • For older children, it‘s important to look at other symptoms and how unwell your child seems. Some mild diseases produce very high fevers and severe illnesses can produce mild fever.

You must also take your child to the doctor or emergency department quickly if they:

  • have a very high fever (over 40ºC)
  • are still feverish after three days of home treatment, or seem to be getting sicker
  • are shivering or shaking uncontrollably or have chattering teeth
  • have a severe headache that does not get better after taking painkillers
  • are breathing differently or having trouble breathing
  • are getting confused, unusually drowsy or you can’t wake them up properly
  • seem floppy or complain of leg pain.

Signs of meningitis

If you child has any of the symptoms below, along with a fever, they could have a serious illness like meningitis:

  • Hallucinations
  • Vomiting
  • A stiff neck (they’re unable to put their chin on their chest or have pain when moving their neck forward)
  • A skin rash.

The meningitis skin rash looks like purple/red pinpricks that don't disappear when you press the skin.

See your doctor or go to the Emergency Department immediately if your child has any of these symptoms.

Signs of dehydration

If your child is becoming dehydrated, you should also see your doctor.

The signs are:

  • a dry mouth
  • sunken eyes
  • no tears
  • their skin does not relax after being pinched.  

In babies, their fontanelle may be sunken.

Signs of an infection

If your child’s fever goes away for more than 24 hours and then returns, you should take them to the doctor as this could be a sign of an infection that needs treatment.

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.

If your child has a seizure

Sometimes a fever can lead to a febrile seizure (also called a ‘fit’ or ‘febrile convulsion’).

The seizure may occur without warning. Your child may jerk or twitch and become stiff or floppy. They may become unconscious or unaware of their surroundings, or have trouble breathing.

If this happens, follow these steps.

  • Lie your child on their side.
  • Make sure they don’t breathe in any vomit.
  • If the seizure doesn’t stop within five minutes, call 111.
  • Take your child to your doctor or Emergency Department when the seizure has stopped.

Caring for your child with a fever

Most fevers last only three to four days – and a mild fever may not need any treatment at all. 

Try these ideas if your child’s fever is mild (as long as they have no other worrying symptoms – if they do, see your doctor).

  • Give them plenty of fluids to drink – little and often. This helps cool them down and replaces fluids lost through sweating. Water is best – or breast milk, for a breastfed baby.
  • Dress them in lightweight clothes and use lighter bedding. Keep the room temperature normal.
  • Put cool cloths on your child’s face, arms and neck to help them cool down. Don’t use any rapid cooling methods that make your child shiver. (The muscle movement in shivering will actually raise your child’s temperature and can make their fever worse.)
  • You can give your child paracetamol or ibuprofen if they’re distressed or unwell. However, don’t use these medicines just to reduce a fever if your child is otherwise well. Make sure you double check dose instructions and give according to your child’s weight and the directions provided with the specific medication for both timing and dose. (It‘s very important for your child to not get dehydrated if taking ibuprofen, as there is a risk of kidney disease.) 
  • Don’t treat fever with aspirin in children under 18, as there’s a risk of Reye's syndrome, which is very serious.
  • Check your child's skin colour, activity, breathing and hydration after giving paracetamol or ibuprofen.  
  • Check your child during the night.
  • If your child doesn’t seem to improve or you’re at all worried, take them to your doctor.
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