Fever Is…

Fever is scary to parents.

Parents hear about fever seizures and are afraid the temperature will get so high that it will cause permanent brain damage. In reality the way a child is acting is more important than the temperature. If they’re dehydrated, having difficulty breathing,  or are in extreme pain, you don’t need a thermometer to know they’re sick.

Fever is uncomfortable.

Fever can make the body ache. It’s often associated with other pains, such as headache or muscle aches. Kids look miserable when they have a fever. They might appear more tired than normal. They breathe faster. Their heart pounds. They whine. Their face is flushed. They are sweaty. They might have chills, causing them to shake.

Fever is often feared as something bad.

Parents often fear the worst with a fever:

Is it pneumonia? Leukemia? Ear infection?

Fever is good in most cases. 

In most instances, fever in children is good. It’s a sign of a working immune system.

Fever is often associated with decreased appetite.

This decreased food intake worries parents, but if the child is drinking enough to stay hydrated, they can survive a few days without food. Kids typically increase their intake when feeling well again. Don’t force them to eat when sick, but do encourage fluids to maintain hydration.

Fever is serious in infants under 3 months, immunocompromised people, and in underimmunized kids.

These kids do not have very effective immune systems and are more at risk from diseases their bodies can’t fight. Any abnormal temperature (both too high and too low) should be completely evaluated in these at risk children.

Fever is inconvenient.

I hate to say it, but for many parents it’s just not convenient for their kids to be sick. A big meeting at work. A child’s class party. A recital. A big game or tournament.  

Whatever it is, our lives are busy and we don’t want to stop for illness. Unfortunately, there is no treatment for fever that makes it become non-infectious immediately, so it is best to stay home. Don’t expose others by giving your child ibuprofen and hoping the school nurse won’t call.

Fever is a normal response to illness in most cases.

Most fevers in kids are due to viruses and run their course in 3-5 days. Parents usually want to know what temperature is too high, but that number is really unknown (probably above 106F). The height of a fever does not tell us how serious the infection is. The higher the temperature, the more miserable a person feels. That’s why it’s recommended to use a fever reducer after 102F. The temperature doesn’t need to come back to normal, it just needs to come down enough for comfort.

Fever is most common at night.

Unfortunately most illnesses are more severe at night. This has to do with the complex system of hormones in our body. It means that kids who seem “okay” during the day have more discomfort over night. This decreases everyone’s sleep and is frustrating to parents, but is common.  

Fever is a time that illnesses are considered most contagious.

During a fever viral shedding is highest. It’s important to keep anyone with fever away from others as much as practical (in a home, confining kids to a bedroom can help). Wash hands and surfaces that person touches often during any illness. Continue these precautions until the child is fever free for 24 hours without fever reducers. (Remember that temperatures fluctuate, so a few hours without fever doesn’t prove that the infection is resolved.)

Fever is an elevation of normal temperature.

Normal temperature varies throughout the day and depends on the location the temperature was taken and the type of thermometer used. Digital thermometers have replaced glass mercury thermometers due to safety concerns with mercury. Ear thermometers are not accurate in young infants or those with wax in the ear canal. Plastic strip thermometers and pacifier thermometers give a general idea of a temperature, but are not accurate.

To identify a true fever, it’s important to note the degree temperature as well as location taken. (A kiss on the forehead can let most parents know if the child is warm or hot, but doesn’t identify a true fever and therefore the need to isolate to prevent spreading illness.) I never recommend adding or subtracting degrees to decide if it is a fever. You can look at a child to know if they’re sick.

The degree of temperature helps guide if they can go to school or daycare, not how you should treat the child.

Fevers in children are generally defined as temperatures above 100.4 F (38 C).

Fever is rarely dangerous, though parents often fear the worst.

This is the time of year kids will be sick more than normal. Kids get sick more than adults. With each illness there can be fever (though not always).

What you can do:
  • Be prepared at home with a fever reducer and know your child’s proper dosage for his or her weight.
  • Use fever reducers to make kids comfortable, not to bring the temperature to normal.
  • Push water and other fluids to help kids stay hydrated.
  • Teach kids to wash their hands and cover coughs and sneezes with their elbows.
  • Stay home when sick to keep from spreading germs. It’s generally okay to return to work/school when fever – free 24 hours without the use of fever reducers.
  • Help kids rest when sick.
  • If the fever lasts more than 3-5 days, your child looks dehydrated, is having trouble breathing, is in extreme pain, or you are concerned, your child should be seen. A physical exam (and sometimes labs or x-ray) is needed to identify the source ofillness in these cases.  A phone call cannot diagnose a source of fever.
  • Any infant under 3 months or immunocompromised child should be seen to rule out serious disease if the temperature is more than 100.5.

Menthol for Sore Throat, Colds and Coughs… Should we use it?

I am often asked about the use of Vick’s Vapo Rub (or other menthol products and refer to all brands in this post).

We see menthol for vaporizer dispensers, in cough drops, and the good ole jar of rub that mom used on our chests when we were sick.

But should we use it?

Cough drops

Menthol is a mild anesthetic that provides a cooling sensation when used as a cough drop. The menthol is basically a local anesthetic which can temporarily numbs the nerves in the throat that are irritated by the cold symptoms and provide some relief. (Interestingly, menthol is added to cigarettes in part to numb the throat so new smokers can tolerate the smoke irritation better. Hmmm…)

Menthol cough drops must be used as a lozenge and not chewed or swallowed because the menthol must slowly be exposed to the throat for the numbing effect. They are not recommended for young children due to risk of choking. Since science lacks strong evidence, but the risk to most school aged children is low and it is safer than most other cough medicines, I use the “if it seems to help, use it” rule for children not at risk of choking. Do not let any child go to sleep with one in his mouth. First, he might choke if he falls asleep with it in his mouth. Second, we all need to brush teeth before sleeping to avoid cavities!

Vaporized into the air

When it is put into a vaporized solution, menthol can decrease the feeling of need to cough. It should never be used for children under 2 years of age. They have smaller airways, and the menthol can cause increased mucus production, which plugs their narrow airways and may lead to respiratory distress. Infants can safely use vaporizers (and humidifiers) that put water into the air without any added medications.

The rubs for the skin

We’ve all seen the social media posts supporting putting the menthol rubs on the feet during sleep to help prevent cough. That has never made sense to me, and the link provided discusses that it is not a proven way to use the rubs.

Menthol studies show variable effectiveness. It has been shown to decrease cough from baseline (but the placebo worked just as well) and did not show improved lung function with  spirometry tests (but people stated they could breathe better) in this interesting study.  In other words, people felt better, but there really was no objective improvement.

Putting menthol rubs directly under the nose, as opposed to rubbing it on the chest, may actually increase mucus production according to a study published in Chest. In children under age 2, this could result in an increase in more plugging of their more narrow airways. There might be a concern with putting any petrolatum based product in or near the nose. There is a more recent study that does show children ages 2-11 years with cough sleep better with a menthol rub on the chest.

Note: There is a Vick’s BabyRub that does not contain menthol. Its ingredients have not been proven to be effective and some of the ingredients have their own concerns, but that does not fall into this discussion.

Cautions

Menthol products should never be used in children under 2 years of age. It can actually cause more inflammation in their airways and lead to respiratory distress.

Photo source: Angel caboodle at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons 

If a child ingests camphor (another ingredient along with menthol in the rubs) it can be deadly. It has been known to cause seizures in children under 36 months when absorbed or ingested in high concentrations. Menthol rubs sold in the US contain camphor in a concentration that is felt to be safe if applied to intact skin in those over 2 years of age. Mucus membranes absorb medicines more readily than intact skin, so do not apply to nostrils, lips, or broken skin. Do not allow children to handle these rubs. Apply only below their necks to intact skin.

Many people using the menthol rubs experience skin irritation. Discontinue use if this happens.