Temperatures and febrile convulsions in children

Having a raised temperature (fever) is a common event in childhood and is usually a sign of infection. Some children feel very uncomfortable and miserable when their temperature is raised and it is important to try to reduce it. Several things will help.

Reducing the amount of clothing the child is wearing is one obvious thing to do. There is often a temptation to wrap up a sick child in a blanket and cuddle them. However, this may only make them hotter. The best situation for a child with a fever is in a room heated to a comfortable temperature, with no clothes on.

Giving the child plenty to drink and encouraging them not to rush around will also help. Two medicines commonly used to treat fever in children are paracetamol and ibuprofen. They should be taken according to the instructions on the label, or as recommended by your doctor or pharmacist.

While many of the causes of childhood temperatures are simple virus infections that are not serious, medical advice should always be sought if the temperature is persistently raised or if the child seems particularly ill.

What is a febrile convulsion?

One of the most frightening things to happen to a child with a fever is a febrile convulsion (‘febrile’ means having a fever and ‘convulsion’ is another word for ‘fit’). These occur because babies’ brains are not fully mature and their normal activity is disturbed by increased temperature. Febrile convulsions are most common between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. They are rare after the age of 6.

The child will become unconscious and its body undergoes a series of jerking movements. This may last only a few seconds or up to a few minutes. The child should be laid on its side. Don't try to restrain the body in the hope that you can stop the fit, but make sure there is plenty of space around so the child won't be injured. If possible, loosen any tight clothing around the neck.

Having a febrile convulsion does not cause any permanent damage and does not mean the child will have fits when they are older. There is about a 30 per cent chance that an affected child will have another seizure associated with a fever in the future. Some children are more prone to febrile convulsions than others, including those with a family history.

While the great majority of febrile convulsions are caused by fevers associated with typical childhood infections, some children may have more serious underlying infections — seek urgent medical attention if there is any doubt.

Dr Michael Jones