You’re Treating Your Child’s Fever Wrong
Ice packs and cold cloths just make things worse when your kid’s temperature spikes
I walked into the hospital room of my young patient who was admitted due to complications of an infection. The child had a fever. “Can we get fresh ice packs?” asked the parents. I drew a deep breath while I mentally cued up the mini-physiology lecture I deliver to parents in situations like this.
When our children have fevers and are feeling miserable, the impetus to cool them off is understandable. But before you toss them in that ice bath, let’s take a look at the science of fevers and the best way to treat them.
Fevers and hyperthermia
First, let’s be clear about what we are talking about. We are talking about fevers, which are very different from hyperthermia.
Hyperthermia (the extreme version of which is called “heat stroke”) occurs when the body’s temperature rises abnormally due to extreme environmental temperatures or extreme levels of physical activity, or both.
Hyperthermia can be very dangerous, leading to brain damage and other complications. If your child is hyperthermic, the environment is controlling her temperature — not her brain. Her brain is telling her body to do all it can to cool down, but that is not enough.
The most common causes of hyperthermia in children and youth are athletic activity in hot conditions, and entrapment (for example in a hot car). If your child is hyperthermic, she needs help from medical personnel right away.
Fevers, on the other hand, are typically not dangerous — although the infections they alert us to might be. This is because when your child is “febrile” (the term we in The Business give to having a fever), her brain is in control of her body temperature, and a normal, healthy brain will not fry itself. (Sometimes a child will be so sick that her brain is not getting enough blood flow and oxygen to function properly. But such a child needs an ambulance, not an ice pack.)
A fever can make your child feel terrible, but her body is not doing itself harm. It is intentionally raising the temperature to fight the infection.