When To Call the Doctor for a Cold or Fever

When To Call the Doctor for a Cold or Fever

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For proponents of natural parenting, not only is it a challenge to decide when to call the doctor during your child’s cold or fever. It’s mainly a challenge to explain to well-meaning friends and family the basis of your decision and the evidence that shows your choice is safe.

Here you’ll find information on:

  • Why fevers are beneficial to the body
  • When a cold or heat becomes dangerous
  • How long to let a fever work before calling the doctor

We ran into our predicament lately when Baby Del came down with a fever seven days into a cold. We didn’t want to rush to visit the doctor (and possibly be prescribed anti-biotics). Everything we had read in our books about natural healing and immune support recommended:

  • Keeping our baby’s outstanding intestinal flora intact by avoiding antibiotics,
  • Avoiding the dangers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria due to overuse of antibiotics, and
  • Giving the fever some time to do its work.

But as is often the case, the grandparents were not in support! And the nagging question, of course, was:

When is it time to call the doctor?

Out of necessity, I tracked down the information I needed to reassure my child’s loving relatives that our decision was sound and reasonable. Here it is!

Don’t Call the Doctor Immediately For a Cold Alone

Now, OK, I’m not a doctor or a medical practitioner of any kind, so don’t let anything I say on this website substitute for sound advice by a qualified medical practitioner. But I can tell you what the published expert doctor-types say:

Coughs and colds are seldom a reason to go to the ER or page your doctor in the middle of the night. — AskDrSears.com

This is not rocket science, eh?

But I know, some of us have incredibly active imaginations coupled with an immense love of our children or grandchildren. That’s a good thing, but we need to save our energy for the heavy stuff. If you or your loved ones are ready to head the doctor at the first sign of a cold, or even the second sign, with no other complicating symptoms present, the information I’m getting says: cool your jets, cowboy.

Now, if your immediate next thought is, “But what if…” read on!

Children’s Fevers Are Good

Here are some words straight from the American Academy Of Pediatrics:

By itself, fever is not an illness. In fact, usually it is a positive sign that the body is fighting infection. Fever stimulates certain defenses, such as the white blood cells which attack and destroy invading bacteria. — Your Baby’s First Year, AAP (aff)

Beneficial fevers:

  • Stimulate the immune system to increase white blood cell production that fights infection
  • Inhibit the reproduction of bacteria and viruses
  • Increase heart rate, allowing more efficient transport of white blood cells through the body
  • Increase antibody production
  • Intensify the effect of interferon, an antiviral agent that protects uninfected cells from viral infection
  • Speed up chemical reactions, assisting in bodily cell repair

Since fever is the body’s mechanism for fighting disease, whether viral or bacterial, it’s also not necessary to immediately suppress the heat, unless it is a high fever (above 103 F or 39.4 C), or recommended by your doctor. According to Lucy Burney, author of Boost Your Child’s Immune System (aff):

Such medicines not only reduce the temperature and therefore the child’s immune activity, but also mask the symptoms so that the child temporarily feels better. I think this is a real mistake, because the child is then likely to be doing things that will not be remotely helpful to the healing process — such as running around and eating.


Some fevers are dangerously high and warrant immediate medical attention. Most resources recommend to call your doctor immediately or visit the emergency room for:

  • Temperatures above 100.4 F (38 C) in infants two months of age or younger
  • Temperatures above 101 F (38.3 F) in infants 2-3 months of age
  • Fevers above 103 F (39.4 C) that are non-responsive to fever-reducing medications

You may encounter friends or relatives who believe that the first sign of fever of any kind is the moment you should visit the doctor. But according to doctors, it is the fever combined with your child’s activities and other symptoms that indicates whether your child’s illness is severe.

If you’d like a quick list of signals for when to worry about a fever or cold, I’ve also compiled this summary of symptoms and warning signs that could represent a more severe illness. It’s a compendium of danger signs from various medical resources.

Yes, call your doctor if you in any way suspect a more severe condition, but try a list of fever and severe danger signs like this if you’d like a heads up on what to look for.

Want even more info? Here’s a list of articles and books that I keep on hand to know what I’m looking for when treating a cold or fever at home:

  • “Coughs, Colds and Sinus Infections”, an article from AskDrSears.com
  • Your Baby’s First Year (aff), American Academy of Pediatrics. (More conservative than the Dr. Sears article, but good to have on hand)
  • Boost Your Child’s Immune System: A Program and Recipes for Raising Strong, Healthy Kids (aff) by Lucy Burney (recommended by Richard Saphir, MD, Professor of Pediatrics Mt. Sinai School of Medicine)

How Long to Let a Fever Work Before Calling the Doctor

The following statement from AskDrSears.com says it all:

By understanding what should be expected from the common cold, you can decide more accurately when to take your child to the doctor, and when to stay home and ride it out. It may be tough to ride it out through [the worst-case cold scenarios]. However, if your child is generally acting well when the fever is down, does not have fever lasting more than 5 days (5 complete 24-hour periods), does not have respiratory distress (such as shortness of breath, moderate to severe wheezing, rapid breathing, or chest pains), and overall seems to be okay, then you don’t always need to see a doctor.

To be more specific, Dr. Sears recommends the following guidelines regarding fever accompanying a cold. Seek medical attention when:

  • Fever spikes at over 103 F (39.4 C) for greater than three days
  • Fever spikes at over 101 F (38.3 C) for greater than five days

Certainly do not delay calling your doctor if your gut tells you your child is truly sick, or if you simply want a diagnosis to be sure that your child is not seriously ill. But feel free to let your doctor know if you are comfortable with taking a “wait and see” approach, and allowing your child’s body time to fight a cold or infection naturally.

Most doctors are aware of the dangers of over-prescribing antibiotics and will be relieved to know that you are not “demanding” medication. Some parents do expect a remedy when visiting the doctor and will complain if not given a prescription. What they do not realize is that antibiotic-resistant superbugs are being created by their sincere efforts to do good. Your doctor just might be grateful to be given both the opportunity to diagnose your child to ensure safety and the freedom to suggest waiting before prescribing medication.

By allowing fever time to do its work during a cold — while at the same time watching for signs of complications. — we can work with our doctor to prevent overuse of antibiotics, we can avoid strengthening current bacteria strains, and we can make it less likely that our children will require further antibiotics in the future.

For myself, I’d like to save antibiotics for the more severe complications that could arise and know that when we do need them, they’ll work.

To your health, and the health of your family,

Mama Hope

Disclaimer: The above content is for informational purposes only and is not intended to give medical advice. This content not intended as a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional advice or delay in seeking it because of the content found on this site.