Fevers have a job to do. They are part of God's design -- the body's way of killing the virus that is making it sick. When we reduce the fever, we make it harder for the body to kill the virus. Fevers also cause us to rest. When we give our children fever-reducing medications, they start to play and be more active instead of resting. Rest is an important part of the healing process for the body. In my experience, if I give tylenol or ibuprofen to lower a fever, then my children may feel better temporarily, but they take longer to recover from the virus.
I do treat fevers sometimes. I will give tylenol to lower a fever if I feel it's getting too high. This varies with the age of the child, but when my 7 year old was running a fever last week, I started giving tylenol as it neared 103. (I treat sooner with younger children, especially babies.) I did this for more than one reason, though. Not just to lower the temperature, but also to provide pain relief for his throat so he'd eat and drink more. Fluids are very important when dealing with a fever, so I will treat the fever (and pain) if the child isn't drinking enough. Since rest is also important when sick, I will also give pain relievers if the child is unable to rest because of pain or coughing.
By choosing to spare the medication and let the body work on healing itself, I do take on a different responsibility. I have to monitor the child's temperature more closely. I have to pay attention to how much water they're drinking. I have to talk with them about their pain level or find appealing foods that are gentle and healthy. We try to support the body in its healing rather than just cover up the symptoms of the illness.
We don't usually rush into the doctor at the first sign of a fever. Usually we wait and see what happens. If the fever lasts more than 3 days, we take them to the doctor. If we think we've been exposed to strep, or the symptoms match strep, we do take them in sooner.
Some of the other reasons we'd take a child to the doctor include:
- fever lasting more than 3 days
- the child is dehydrated by the fever or vomiting, though I have never needed to take one in for this
- the child is having difficulty breathing
- the child is incoherent or not waking up, though I've never had this happen either
- there are signs of an infection (ear, nose, lungs or throat)
- the fever will not come down with medication (also never has happened)
- a newborn has a fever
- we just feel something is wrong
When Friday arrives and our child is borderline between waiting it out (by our standards) or seeing the Doctor, we have to make a decision. We look at how long they've been sick, how this sickness has played out in other family members thus far, and the child's personal medical history. Sometimes we choose to see the Doctor before the weekend, just in case. Other times we decide to wait until Monday. When we choose to wait, we know that there is always the option of going to urgent care if the child grows suddenly worse. Usually they don't need urgent care, and they are improving by Monday.
A Recent Example
Two weeks ago, my active 7 year old son was sleeping his days away on the couch, running a fever between 102 and 103. He'd wake up to get a drink, snack a bit, or talk to me. He was definitely sick, but the greatest danger was dehydration. When his fever topped 103, and I knew he'd been drinking very little, I gave him some tylenol. His fever soon fell to 99 and he was up playing. He played until the tylenol wore off four hours later. I tried to get him to lay back down and rest, but he wouldn't. I was reminded of why I like to leave fevers alone. The fever has work to do, and it can do it better if the child is resting. (Thankfully he did drink quite a bit during those four hours.)
When his fever was still going strong after 3.5 days, I took him to the Doctor Friday afternoon. He'd already had a negative strep test earlier in the week, since he is prone to strep. But it was Friday, and it had been more than 3 days, so we went just in case. The doctor still felt it was a virus, which just needed to run its course. She did wonder about mono, but didn't want to test for it yet because it requires a blood draw. She saw no signs of infection, but did give an antibiotic, just in case. We started the antibiotics Friday night. Saturday morning, his fever was gone. I suppose it's possible that one dose of antibiotics broke his fever because he had some underlying infection we couldn't spot ... but I suspect it was really just the end of the virus. If only we'd waited until Saturday morning to fill his prescription. We could have called the pharmacy and told them we didn't need it. Instead, he's finishing the course of antibiotics he probably didn't need.
Education and Experience
We saw the doctor last month for a baby checkup on Baby V. The nurse thanked me for not running in with every sniffly nose or fever our children get. I guess even when I was a younger mom, it never occurred to me to rush in for every sniffle or cough, because I'd watched my Mom treat plenty of colds at home. However, there were times I took in a child whose cold or cough seemed especially bad, only to have a family doctor tell me it was viral and keep doing what I was doing.
I'm so thankful for those doctors who didn't throw a bunch of prescriptions at me and gave me confidence to reognize a virus and let it run its course. I've learned over the years to tell the difference between a virus and an infection (most of the time) and I've also learned to recognize when a secondary infection has settled in after a virus. Some of that came with educating myself more on the nature of viruses, and some of that came with experience.
I'm not a nurse or a doctor ... just a Mom trying to share some wisdom gained from 15.5 years of experience with 8 children. You have to know your own child. If your child never runs a fever, or is prone to seizures or serious dehydration, you'll need to respond differently to fevers than we do. My children tend to run fevers with viruses, and sometimes those fevers can be high. We've learned that it won't hurt them to let them run a fever. They sleep, and they get better.
I hope your family stays well this winter and you don't face any high fevers, but if you do ... consider letting the fever run its course and do its work. Trust the body to heal itself, the way God designed it to. And if your child has a fever, please keep them home. Don't give them cold medicine and tylenol to cover the symptoms up and take them out in public to spread their germs (and where they also can't rest.)