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When to Worry (and not Worry) About Your Child's Fever

Parenting is full of obstacles that can be hard to navigate—even without a toddler yelling at your face. There’s no instruction manual, which means discerning fact from fiction and reasonable from ridiculous can be maddening. That’s where Parentalogic comes in, a digital series brought to you by NOVA and PBS Digital Studios. Subscribe to the YouTube channel to receive alerts when new episodes launch.

Premiered: Runtime: 6:32Topic: Body + BrainBody & BrainNova
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Even outside the era of COVID-19, childhood fevers can be concerning — and sometimes downright confusing — for parents and caretakers. In this episode of Parentalogic, hosts Alok Patel and Bethany Van Delft answer all of your burning questions: What do you do if your kid has a fever? When should you call your doctor, bring your child to a hospital, or just stay home? Do ice baths actually work? And what exactly is a fever?

Together, the duo rebrands fever’s bad image — “So basically, [childrens’] immune systems are setting up the right scenario to go to battle,” Alok, who’s a pediatrician, says — and explains exactly what happens to your child when they get sick. 

First, pyrogens make their way to the brain’s hypothalamus, which acts like a body’s thermostat. Pyrogens are chemicals either from invading pathogens, like influenza or SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the current pandemic, or triggered from the immune system. Once in the hypothalamus, pyrogens drive up the body’s temperature. 

But what’s the point? Experts believe that at a slightly elevated temperature, the chemical reactions used by the immune system are more efficient. This gives the immune system a competitive advantage over the virus or bacteria it’s fighting: Lots of microorganisms, it turns out, can’t take the heat. (Microorganisms aren’t the only things that can cause a fever, however. Autoimmune or autoinflammatory conditions, chronic or rheumatologic disease, pneumonia, ear infections, certain medications and vaccinations can all cause fever, too.)

And if your child shivers with the onset of a fever, not to worry! It may seem counterintuitive, but shivering is the body’s response to its new, hotter, “set point.”

But can fevers get out of control? Can acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and/or ice baths successfully — and safely — reduce your child’s fever? And are fevers in young babies, especially infants less than 3 months old, ever OK? 

Watch and learn how to best help your child feel better from a fever and keep others around them healthy and safe (hint: stay at home, social distance, and encourage frequent handwashing). Bethany and Alok are here to spill the tea on this hot topic. 

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National Corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.

Major funding for Parentalogic is provided by the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation and PBS.