98.6 is average, not normal: Dispelling fever fears

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

What if I said 5’10” is the normal adult height for a male? Or a “B cup” is a normal bra size for a normal woman? Or that normal people have a skin tone the color of cappuccino, or that normal people should wear size 8 shoes? None of this makes sense. People come in all sorts of normal sizes and shapes, and almost all measurements of a person’s foot size or height or skin tone or whatever are going to be in a range of normal—from size 6 to size 13, or whatever.

It’s also wrong to say that a certain heart rate or blood pressure is normal. Your vital signs—pulse, respiratory rate, and blood pressure—vary throughout the day. There’s a range, not a single normal value. Likewise, your body temperature varies, usually falling into a range of normal values.

Normal temperatures vary from person to person, and by the time of day. Women tend to have slightly higher “normal temperatures” than men, and their measured temperatures can also change depending on their menstrual cycle. Bottom line: there isn’t a single, normal temperature for the human body.

The average human body temperature, overall, is probably something close to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That means about half the time, your child will be a bit above that; at other times, below. A measured temperature above 98.6 does not mean your child is sick.

Since normal body temperatures follow a range of values, one accepted definition of fever is a temperature at or above 100.4 (some clinicians prefer 100.8). More important than the number, honestly, is how ill the child is acting and what other symptoms there are, but in any case a measured temperature less than 100.4 is not really a fever—it’s just a normal value in a normal range.

If your child has a measured temperature of 99.0 or 99.8, it’s not a low-grade fever. It’s not any kind of fever. It’s just a temperature in the range of normal, or maybe a temperature a little higher than average for that child. But it’s still not a fever. The child might still might be sick (depending on other symptoms), and might need comfort and reassurance–but don’t worry yourself or confuse the picture. A temperature in the normal range is not a fever.

More about fever in children:

What is fever?

Why do kids get fevers?

Don’t be afraid of fever

What to do when your child has a fever: The action plan

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