Should You Let a Fever Run Its Course?

It's tempting to reach for medicine to bring that fever down, but it may not always be helpful. . (Photo: Tomsickova Tatyana/Shutterstock)

When your child has a fever, you may be tempted to reach for a bottle of ibuprofen or acetaminophen. After all, who wants to see a child cranky and miserable? But some health experts suggest that our knee-jerk response to fevers may not always be in a body's best interest. A fever is a symptom, not an illness. And it's the body's attempt to fight off whatever else is going on.

"Fevers in and of themselves are typically not dangerous to your child," Jarret Patton, M.D., a pediatrician in Reading, Pennsylvania, tells MNN.

As parents, we may worry that, left untreated, a fever could spike to dangerous levels, causing seizures or possibly even brain damage. But these scenarios are extremely rare, and in the case of febrile seizures, while disturbing, they are not usually harmful to the child, according to WebMD.

What may be harmful to a child is administering doses of antipyretics (medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen that reduce fevers) that are larger than a small body can handle. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, "many parents administer antipyretics even though there is either minimal or no fever." The study found that 15 percent of parents give kids larger doses of ibuprofen than they need, even for mild fevers as low as 100 degrees.

Treating fevers can also make it harder for the body to fight off an illness. A fever is your body's way of attacking whatever it is that is making you sick, whether it's a cold, the flu or some kind of infection. Fevers make it difficult for germs to survive and trigger an increase in the amount of microbe-fighting white blood cells circulating in the body. Take away the fever and you can take away the body's natural defense against illness.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Fever is a physiological mechanism that has beneficial effects in fighting infection. Although many parents administer antipyretics such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to a child to reduce a fever ... the primary goal should be to help the child feel more comfortable, rather than to maintain a "normal" temperature.

Patton's advice is in line with this recommendation. "Treating the fever should be based on how the child feels and looks and not the number," says Patton. "If they are happy and playful with a temperature of 102, you can let it ride. If they are miserable and cranky with a temperature of 101, you can give an antipyretic to help alleviate their symptoms." And just remember, one side effect of a fever is that it makes you want to do nothing but rest. That's exactly what you should be doing when your body is trying to fight off an illness.

Deciding whether to treat your child's fever should also depend on your child's age and temperature, according to the MayoClinic. For example, you should call the doctor if you have an infant under 3 months with a fever over 100.4 degrees F or between 3-6 months with a temperature above 102. Give acetaminophen or ibuprofen if your child is between 6 and 24 months with a fever over 102. When in doubt, always call your child's doctor with questions.

Whether or not you decide to treat your child's fever, it's a good idea to monitor it as well as your child's other symptoms. And if you do decide that ibuprofen or acetaminophen is in order, follow the dosing instructions to the letter.