Fever phobia revisited: have parental misconceptions about fever changed in 20 years?

M Crocetti, N Moghbeli, J Serwint
Pediatrics 2001, 107 (6): 1241-6

OBJECTIVES: Fever is one of the most common reasons that parents seek medical attention for their children. Parental concerns arise in part because of the belief that fever is a disease rather than a symptom or sign of illness. Twenty years ago, Barton Schmitt, MD, found that parents had numerous misconceptions about fever. These unrealistic concerns were termed "fever phobia." More recent concerns for occult bacteremia in febrile children have led to more aggressive laboratory testing and treatment. Our objectives for this study were to explore current parental attitudes toward fever, to compare these attitudes with those described by Schmitt in 1980, and to determine whether recent, more aggressive laboratory testing and presumptive treatment for occult bacteremia is associated with increased parental concern regarding fever.

METHODS: Between June and September 1999, a single research assistant administered a cross-sectional 29-item questionnaire to caregivers whose children were enrolled in 2 urban hospital-based pediatric clinics in Baltimore, Maryland. The questionnaire was administered before either health maintenance or acute care visits at both sites. Portions of the questionnaire were modeled after Schmitt's and elicited information about definition of fever, concerns about fever, and fever management. Additional information included home fever reduction techniques, frequency of temperature monitoring, and parental recall of past laboratory workup and treatment that these children had received during health care visits for fever.

RESULTS: A total of 340 caregivers were interviewed. Fifty-six percent of caregivers were very worried about the potential harm of fever in their children, 44% considered a temperature of 38.9 degrees C (102 degrees F) to be a "high" fever, and 7% thought that a temperature could rise to >/=43.4 degrees C (>/=110 degrees F) if left untreated. Ninety-one percent of caregivers believed that a fever could cause harmful effects; 21% listed brain damage, and 14% listed death. Strikingly, 52% of caregivers said that they would check their child's temperature </=1 hour when their child had a fever, 25% gave antipyretics for temperatures <37.8 degrees C (<100 degrees F), and 85% would awaken their child to give antipyretics. Fourteen percent of caregivers gave acetaminophen, and 44% gave ibuprofen at too frequent dosing intervals. Of the 73% of caregivers who said that they sponged their child to treat a fever, 24% sponged at temperatures </=37.8 degrees C (</=100 degrees F); 18% used alcohol. Forty-six percent of caregivers listed doctors as their primary resource for information about fever. Caregivers who stated that they were very worried about fever were more likely in the past to have had a child who was evaluated for a fever, to have had blood work performed on their child during a febrile illness, and to have perceived their doctors to be very worried about fever. Compared with 20 years ago, more caregivers listed seizure as a potential harm of fever, woke their children and checked temperatures more often during febrile illnesses, and gave antipyretics or initiated sponging more frequently for possible normal temperatures.

CONCLUSIONS: Fever phobia persists. Pediatric health care providers have a unique opportunity to make an impact on parental understanding of fever and its role in illness. Future studies are needed to evaluate educational interventions and to identify the types of medical care practices that foster fever phobia.fever, fever phobia, child, children, antipyretics, sponging, health care practices.

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