Many parents are overmedicating their children on fever-reducing drugs, poll reveals

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Once winter rolls around, kids usually start to get sick due to consistent viral exposure in schools and daycares. One of the first signs of illness for them is usually a warmer-than-normal forehead or fever. However, a new national poll suggests that many parents are not properly responding to their child’s high temperatures. The survey finds one in three parents give fever-reducing medicine even if it’s a barely low-grade temperature — meaning below 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Additionally, half of parents say they use medicine if the fever is between 100.4 and 101.9 degrees, and a quarter would likely give an additional dose to prevent the fever from coming back. According to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at University of Michigan Health, this isn’t an ideal practice.

“Often parents worry about their child having a fever and want to do all they can to reduce their temperature. However, they may not be aware that in general the main reason to treat a fever is just to keep their child comfortable,” says Mott Poll co-director and pediatrician Susan Woolford, M.D., in a university release.

“Some parents may immediately rush to give their kids medicine but it’s often better to let the fever runs its course. Lowering a child’s temperature doesn’t typically help cure their illness any faster. In fact, a low-grade fever helps fight off the infection. There’s also the risk of giving too much medication when it’s not needed, which can have side effects,” Woolford adds.

Are parents taking temperatures all wrong?

Researchers conducted the survey from August and September 2022, polling over 1,300 parents with kids ages 12 and under. Two in three parents reported feeling very confident in determining if their child needs fever-reducing medicines or not. Then again, over half claim they know that temperature readings can fluctuate according to what they use to measure it, meaning they may not always be accurate.

Most commonly, parents reported using forehead or mouth temperature scanning devices. Measurements through the ears, underarms, and the rectum were less common. Forehead and ear temperatures are accurate if collected correctly, but it’s easy to end up with inaccurate readings, the researchers explain. If someone holds the scanner too far from the head or if the child is sweating, this could interfere with forehead results. Earwax can also prevent accurate readings.

“Regardless of the device used, it’s important that parents review the directions to ensure the method is appropriate for the child’s age and that the device is placed correctly when measuring temperature,” Woolford says.

A fever can actually be a good thing

Interestingly, Woolford adds that fevers can actually help fight infections, so it may be worth it to let them run their course. Fevers can kill viruses and bacteria that result in sickness, meaning that it can act as a robust immune defense system. If fever-reducing medication is truly what parents want, however, Woolford urges caution, since these medications might end up masking important symptoms.

Medications used to lower temperatures also treat pain, but pain is often a sign that helps to locate the source of an infection,” Woolford concludes. “By masking pain, fever-reducing medication may delay a diagnosis being made and delay receiving treatment if needed.”

Besides this, it’s incredibly important to make sure children are only getting what they need, especially because it doesn’t take much to overdose on over-the-counter drugs. In the future, Woolford thinks parents could benefit from exploring alternative avenues to relieve their child’s discomfort when ill.

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About the Author

Shyla Cadogan, RD

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition and communicating nutrition concepts in a nuanced, approachable way.

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