Fever in children

A fever is a high temperature. Generally, in children fever is a temperature of 38°C (100.4F) or over. It can be worrying if your child has a high temperature. Fever is very common and often clears up without treatment.

Causes of high temperature

A quick and easy way to find out whether your child has a fever is to take their temperature using a thermometer.

Most fevers are caused by infections or other illnesses. The high body temperature makes it more difficult for the bacteria and viruses that cause infections to survive.

Common conditions that can cause fevers include:

Your child's temperature can also be raised after vaccinations, or if they overheat because of too much bedding or clothing.

When to get urgent medical advice 

Contact your GP urgently, if your child:

  • is under three months old and has a temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • is between three and six months old and has a temperature of 39C (102.2F) or above

You should also see your GP if your child has other signs of being unwell, such as:

  • persistent vomiting
  • refusal to feed
  • floppiness or drowsiness

If it isn't possible to contact your GP, call the GP out of hours service.

If your child seems to be otherwise well, for example, if they're playing and attentive, it’s less likely they're seriously ill. 

How to assess if your child is unwell

It can be difficult to tell when a child is seriously ill, but the main thing is to trust your instincts.

It is unlikely there is any serious illness if your child is:

  • a normal colour
  • active
  • breathing normally
  • smiling and responsive

Below are warning signs that might be serious.

Colour

If your child:

  • appears pale, it can be a sign that the illness is becoming more serious, and you should seek advice
  • is mottled, ashen, or blue; this requires urgent assessment and may be an emergency

Activity

If your child:

  • is not responding  normally, and needs much more encouragement than usual to respond, you should seek advice
  • becomes unresponsive, appears unusually unable to stay awake, displays weak, high-pitched, or continuous crying; this requires urgent assessment and may be an emergency

Breathing

If your child:

  • appears to be breathing more rapidly (this depends on their age) then you should seek medical advice 
    • 6–12 months of age: more than 50 breaths per minute 
    • over 12 months of age: more than 40 breaths per minute
  • is grunting or appears distressed breathing or is taking more than 60 breaths per minute; this requires urgent assessment and may be an emergency

Dehydration

  • if symptoms or signs of dehydration are present you should seek advice

Treating a fever 

If your child has a fever, it's important to keep them hydrated by giving them plenty of cool water to drink.

Babies should be given plenty of liquids, such as breast milk or formula. Even if your child isn't thirsty, try to get them to drink little and often to keep their fluid levels up.

Other things that can help keep your child comfortable include:

  • dressing your child in light clothing (appropriate for their surroundings)
  • putting your child in a room with a comfortable temperature
  • if they're warm, covering them with a lightweight sheet or opening a window

Sponging your child with cool water isn't recommended to reduce a fever.

Antipyretics

Children's paracetamol or ibuprofen work as antipyretics, which help to reduce fever, as well as being painkillers. These two medicines work differently.

You can't give them both at the same time. If one doesn't work, you may want to try the other later. You should allow at least three hours to see if the medicine is working before trying an alternative.

Antipyretics aren't always necessary. If your child isn't distressed by the fever or underlying illness, there's no need to use antipyretics to reduce a fever.

When using antipyretics, always read the patient information leaflet that comes with the medication to find the correct dose and frequency for your child's age.

More serious illnesses

Sometimes a high temperature in children is associated with more serious signs and symptoms, such as:

Possible serious bacterial illnesses include:

  • meningitis – infection of the meninges, the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord
  • septicaemia – infection of the blood
  • pneumonia – inflammation of the lung tissue, usually caused by an infection

It's important to remember that potentially serious causes of fever are relatively rare.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was reviewed June 2018

This page is due for review January 2021

Health conditions A to Z

Search by health condition or symptoms

Or find conditions beginning with …

Share this page

Feedback

Would you like to leave feedback about this page? Send us your feedback