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Lifting a Veil of Fear to See a Few Benefits of Fever

Fever is common, but fever is complicated. It brings up science and emotion, comfort and calculation.

As a pediatrician, I know fever is a signal that the immune system is working well. And as a parent, I know there is something primal and frightening about a feverish child in the night.

So those middle-of-the-night calls from worried parents, so frequent in every pediatric practice, can be less than straightforward. A recent paper in The Journal of the American Medical Association pointed out one reason, and a longstanding discussion about parental perceptions reminds us of the emotional context.

The JAMA study looked at over-the-counter medications for children, including those marketed for treating pain and fever: how they are labeled, and whether the droppers and cups and marked spoons in the packages properly reflect the doses recommended on the labels.

The article concluded that many medications are not labeled clearly, that some provide no dosing instrument, and that the instruments, if included, are not marked consistently. (A dosing chart might recommend 1.5 milliliters, but the dropper has no “1.5 ml” mark.)

“Basically, the main message of the paper is that the instructions on the boxes and bottles of over-the-counter medications are really confusing,” said the lead author, Dr. H. Shonna Yin of New York University Medical Center, who is a colleague of mine and an assistant professor of pediatrics.

Too small a dose of an antipyretic (fever medicine) may be ineffective; too much can be toxic. But the dose depends on the child’s weight, which of course changes over time, and on the concentration of the medicine, which depends on whether it is acetaminophen or ibuprofen, children’s liquid or infant drops.

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