When people without kids — or who have older children — find out that you are the parent of a human toddler, their first response often consists of something like, “Oh, what a fun age!” And yet, that sentiment is often accompanied by a facial expression that suggests otherwise. Yes, toddlers are exceptionally adorable, thanks to the cuteness of a baby combined with early communication skills. But once you’ve had your own (or just shared an elevator with one, TBH) you know all of that adorableness is probably nature’s way to overcompensate for, well, everything else. One thing you can file under particularly terrifying-slash-frustrating parts of having a little one this age? Toddler fever.
For starters, you’ll have to wrestle your toddler into a position that allows you to take their temperature in order to find out for sure. Then, once you have identified a fever, a bunch of other questions pop up. What should I do when my toddler has a fever? What type of fever is it? Is it teething? How long should a fever last? How can you reduce a fever in a child naturally? (And so on.)
To that end, better bookmark this page to keep it handy! We’re about to tell you what you need to know about toddler fevers, including the types, treatment, and when to worry.
Types of Fever in Toddlers
Let’s start with what is considered a fever in toddlers. As it turns out, it can differ depending on how (or more accurately, where) you take their temperature, as well as the fact that what we consider the “normal” temperature is actually the average “normal” human temperature. So, if your child consistently runs a temperature slightly above or below 98.6°F, it’s typically not a cause for concern.
Using an accurate digital thermometer, a fever in a toddler is:
- 100°F (37.8°C) when measured orally
- 100.4°F (38°C) when measured rectally
- 99°F (37.2°C) when measured under their armpit
We should also point out that, while having a fever of 104°F is definitely a reason to call the doctor, it does not cause brain damage, as per anxious parent mythology. According to Seattle Children’s Hospital, brain damage from a high fever in toddlers is technically possible — but the fever would have to be above 108°F. We’ll get to this in more detail later on, but if your toddler has a fever that gets up to 102 or 103, that’s the time to consult a doctor.
How long should a fever last in a toddler? Again, it depends. If they have no other symptoms and their behavior (including eating, drinking, and playing) is normal (for them), then a run-of-the-mill toddler fever can last up to five days and shouldn’t be cause for concern.
Where Fevers “Come From”
Have you ever wondered where fevers “come from”? We’ll discuss possible causes in a minute but, like, why are fevers even a thing? Well, the body has its own internal “thermostat.” It exists in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. It knows what temperature the body is supposed to be, and it constantly sends out little messages to try to keep your body at that baseline. But when the internal thermostat raises the body temp above the normal range, the result is a fever. Keep reading to find out why it does this.
Causes of Fever in Toddlers
Almost all fevers in children — including toddlers — are the result of a new infection. Viruses cause 10 times more infections than bacteria, so they are more often to blame for fevers. Other than infections, being overheated (from extreme heat, being overdressed, and/or exercising too hard) and vaccines can also cause fever in toddlers. If your child develops a fever after receiving a vaccine, it’s not a reason to panic. In fact, it’s a sign that the vaccine is working properly. Vaccine fevers typically begin within 12 hours of the vaccination and last between two and three days.
But, contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that a “teething fever” is a thing. While teething may cause a very slight rise in a toddler’s temperature, it’s not enough to be considered an actual fever. So if your toddler does get a fever while they’re teething, it’s best to investigate other causes.
Toddler Fever Remedies
Most low-grade fevers with no other symptoms can be treated at home, but how exactly should you go about doing that? There are a variety of toddler fever remedies, including some that reduce a fever in a child naturally. In fact, most toddler fevers can be treated without medication, so let’s start there. Those remedies include:
- Removing layers of clothing (if they’re wearing multiple layers). Bundling up can cause overheating and make the fever even worse. However, if the child is shivering, use a blanket to cover them up.
- Keeping the tot away from playtime. Their bodies should relax and not partake in any strenuous activity.
- Keeping their room cool.
- Giving them a lukewarm bath.
- Offering them plenty of fluids.
As far as medication, once a child is older than three months (which they are if they’re a toddler), it’s safe to give them the appropriate dose of children’s acetaminophen for their weight. Check the label for that, or, if in doubt, ask your doctor.
If your toddler has symptoms in addition to their fever — like vomiting, a cough, or a rash — it may be another case of consulting with a healthcare professional to get their input about the best remedies and/or if you need to bring them into the office. This is a good rule of thumb if their fever spikes back up each time the over-the-counter medicine wears off. When in doubt, always check in with a pediatrician.
When to Call the Doctor
Though many fevers aren’t a major cause for concern, some do require medical attention — or at least a consultation with your doctor. Seek the attention of a medical professional for your toddler if:
- They have a fever that lasts more than five days.
- They have a fever higher than 102.2 F.
- They have a fever that does not come down with fever reducers.
- Your child is not acting himself or herself, and/or is difficult to awaken.
- Your child isn’t taking in enough liquids/is dehydrated. (You can tell by how much they’re urinating. Those who are not yet potty-trained should be wetting at least four diapers per day. Older children should be urinating at least every eight to 12 hours. Also, if they’re crying but not producing any tears.)
- Your child was recently immunized and has a temperature above 102 F or a fever for more than 48 hours.
- As a parent or caregiver, you are uncomfortable with a child’s temperature or illness.
How do you know when to take a toddler to the ER for a fever? That’s the right call if they have a fever and show any of the following signs:
- Crying that won’t stop
- Extreme irritability or fussiness
- Sluggishness and trouble waking up
- A rash or purple spots that look like bruises on the skin (that were not there before your child got sick)
- Blue lips, tongue, or nails
- Stiff neck
- Severe headache
- Limpness or refusal to move
- Trouble breathing that doesn’t get better when the nose is cleared
- Leaning forward and drooling
- Moderate to severe belly pain
The bottom line is that while high fevers absolutely should be taken seriously, most lower-grade fevers in toddlers shouldn’t be cause for alarm.