A fever is rarely a reason to go to the hospital - here's what to do if you or your child has a fever

A fever is rarely a reason to go to the hospital - here's what to do if you or your child has a fever
Infants 3 months or younger should be taken to a healthcare professional if they have a temperature of 100.4 °F or higher.Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images
  • The hospital is not the first place you should consider going if you have a fever.
  • Adults and children 3 years, and older, typically can recover from a fever on their own without medical aid, but you should consider taking children to their primary care provider if they've had a fever of 102 °F for two or more days.
  • A temperature of 100.4 °F or higher in infants should be monitored closely because there's a greater risk that the fever is due to a serious condition that may require professional care.

A fever is a temporary increase in your normal body temperature usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection.

For adults, a fever will generally go away in a few days. However, for infants and young children, fevers should be taken more seriously, especially if they come with other symptoms like vomiting or confusion.

Here's how to tell whether or not you should go to the hospital for a fever depending on your age and symptoms.
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When to take an infant to the hospital for a fever

Babies 3 months or younger with a temperature of 100.4 °F or higher are considered to have a fever and you should notify a healthcare professional immediately, because there's a high chance of it being a serious condition.

"If it is after hours or your doctor is unavailable, the emergency department is the right place to go," says James Keany, MD and emergency medicine specialist at Mission Hospital in Orange County, California.

To tell if your infant has a fever, the most accurate thermometer is a digital one used rectally, especially for infants under six months old. Read more about other ways you can take your child's temperature.
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Moreover, if your infant has a fever they may exhibit other symptoms. Call the pediatrician or go to the hospital immediately if a baby has a fever along with one, or multiple, of the following symptoms:

  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Can't be woken up easily or at all
  • Seems confused, is crying, and can't be soothed
  • Has trouble breathing even after you've cleared their nose
  • Has stiffness in the neck or will not move a leg or arm
  • Has a seizure, a new rash, or unexplained bruises
  • Has blue nails, tongue, or lips
  • Fewer, or not wet, diapers
  • Trouble with or poor feeding
For infants older than 3 months, here are the guidelines on when to seek medical aid. If the child:
  • Is three months to one year old and has a temperature of 102.2 °F or higher.
  • Is under age two and has a fever that lasts more than two days.
  • Has a fever of 105 °F unless that fever comes down with treatment and the baby's other symptoms resolve.
If you take your infant to the emergency department (ED) for a fever, you'll most likely first see a nurse who will conduct an initial assessment that includes respiratory rate, weight, temperature, heart rate, oxygen levels, and sometimes blood pressure.
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If you have a newborn card with recent medical information, give it to the nurse. Any information you can provide will help your baby's treatment.

Next, a physician, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner will come to evaluate your baby and determine if any further testing is necessary. They might look for bacterial causes of infection, including a blood test, urine test, spinal fluid test, mucus swab, EKG, or X-ray.

After the testing is done, your baby might need antibiotics that will be given intravenously unless the physician has already started an antibiotic while testing is taking place.
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When to take a child to the hospital for a fever

In general, a child three years, or older, with a fever over 102 °F for two or more days should be seen by a healthcare professional.

First, call their primary care provider, and then depending on the child's symptoms, the clinic, and time of day you may, or may not, be advised to take them to the hospital.

A digital thermometer that reads the temperature in the ear, armpit or mouth will be fine, says Keany.
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You should also seek emergency care if your child has any grade fever accompanied by the following symptoms:
  • No urination or burning during urination
  • Stomach pain
  • Stiffness in the neck
  • New rash
  • Trouble breathing
  • Trouble swallowing or can't keep fluids down
  • Not up to date on immunizations

If you take your child to the hospital, the staff will treat the fever and help ease any other symptoms. But treatment depends on the fever's underlying cause. The medical team will determine the best treatment if there's an infection.

When an adult should go to the hospital for a fever

For adults, a fever alone isn't a reason to call your primary healthcare provider or go to the hospital - unless you are a chemotherapy patient, are immune-compromised, or are unimmunized, says Keany.
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If you have a fever, you should first check your symptoms to help determine if you should schedule an appointment with your doctor.

According to the Mayo Clinic, you need to seek emergency care if your fever is 103 °F or higher, or you have a fever along with any of the following symptoms:
  • Confusion
  • Severe weakness or fatigue
  • Inability to eat or drink
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe pain (severe headache or abdominal pain or chest pain)
  • Unrelenting vomiting or diarrhea
  • Unusual skin rash that quickly worsens
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Stiff neck with pain when bending forward
  • Pain when urinating
  • Seizures or convulsions
The hospital staff will treat your fever and set you up with a saline bag so you don't get dehydrated while physicians run some tests to rule out a bacterial infection.
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Hospital vs. doctor

"The overwhelming majority of fevers can wait it out at home," says Keany. Most are caused by viral illnesses, which your body will get rid of by itself.

Symptoms can typically be managed with over the counter medications. If symptoms become too severe to manage at home, you should seek medical attention. Keany advises seeing a doctor right away if there are signs of a bacterial infection, such as burning urination, kidney pain, cough with thick colored sputum production, trouble breathing, an isolated sore throat, or severe abdominal pain.

See your doctor if you can get in to see them for an urgent visit the same day. Otherwise, they will provide instructions on what to do. For example, they might advise you to contact a local urgent care office or head to the ED.
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Fevers are typically your body's way of fighting off an infection and can be treated at home as long as you're not having severe symptoms, don't have a compromised immune system, and (if it's your baby) they are older than six months.

According to Keany, if you have an infection, such as meningitis, appendicitis, bacterial sepsis, bacterial pneumonia, urinary tract infection, or strep throat, your condition will only get increasingly worse without treatment.

Insider's takeaway

Infants 3 months or younger need to see a doctor right away if they have a fever of 100.4 °F degrees or higher.
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Older children and adults can typically rest at home and get better because the fever is usually due to an infection that just needs to run its course.

However, immediate medical attention is required if some worrisome or severe symptoms accompany the fever, or the patient is immunocompromised.

Ultimately, your course of treatment depends on your age, general health, and other symptoms. However, if you're in doubt, call your physician or local medical healthline for advice. You know your body better than anyone.
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