Lessening a fever in your baby or child, with multiple medicines, can be tricky. And it may not always be necessary. Many pediatricians urge avoiding “fever phobia” and allowing a fever to stick around, especially if your child is acting well. See this recent piece, “The Case For Letting Fevers Run Their Course,” by Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert on this take, the data behind it, and why fevers can sometimes help children fight infection.

Lots of families consider alternating medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen at home to treat pain and fever, but I’m unconvinced that this leads to better outcomes for kids and/or improved fever control. It’s not my recommendation that you try alternating medications, and this post is not here to endorse this approach, rather if you choose to, I’m hopeful that this will help you do it more safely.

It’s important to note that the dosing amount for one medicine AND the duration of time between doses for medicines can be different from one medicine to another. So it can get confusing, FAST. However, armed with a plan, alternating medicines can be a good way to feel in control of supporting your child with medicines that relieve fever, improving your child’s behavior and comfort.

First….and I know I said this but I gotta say it again: it’s not necessary to treat every fever. And it’s certainly not ideal to treat the numbers on the thermometer. What always matters most is how your child looks to you and how they appear. Fever is a natural response of the immune system — it’s a response to illness, not illness itself. Fever ultimately can be productive and may assist your child’s body in fighting off infection. There may be no reason to make a fever disappear if your child is otherwise acting well, playful, and staying hydrated.

Second…there are some fevers that do require a visit with the pediatricians. It’s important to seek care when fever persists after 3 days in infants and children, any fever in a baby 3 month old or less, and if fever is over 104 degrees it’s wise to get support. Talk to your doctor before giving a pain reliever or fever reducer containing ibuprofen if your baby is younger than 6 months. Talk to your doctor before giving acetaminophen to a child younger than 2 years to obtain the proper dosing instructions, or see charts below.
Before giving your child any medicines, make sure you know your child’s weight. Dosing is always based on a child’s weight, not age.

Last… trust your instincts! If your child looks unwell in the face of fever and doesn’t seem to be improving as you would expect, call your pediatrician for help! If the fever is unexpected in a way, consider calling in to get support and education.

Ok…now that we’ve got all that out of the way, here is one way you can alternate between medicines (acetaminophen and ibuprofen) every 3-4 hours:

Alternating Acetaminophen And Ibuprofen For Fever

  1. Check you have proper doses for both acetaminophen and ibuprofen for your child knowing the doses may be different.
  2. Make sure you have the proper dosing device (syringe, usually) for each medicine.
  3. Start with one medicine and then always offer the other medicine next, and so on.
  4. Offer a new, alternate med every 3 to 4 hours.

For example, if you give your child acetaminophen at noon, you can give them ibuprofen at 3 PM and then acetaminophen again at 6 PM and ibuprofen again at 9 PM. A safe reminder, neither medicine should be used for more than 72 hours without consulting a physician. If you get uncomfortable with the way your child appears during the time of fever don’t EVER hesitate to reach out to the pediatrician or nurse for support.

Additionally, here are the Seattle Children’s Hospital dosing charts for both acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Take a peek. If any concerns or confusion when dosing any medicine — or even if you chose to alternate medicines — reach out to your child’s pediatric team for help!

5-13 know your OTCs

This post was written in partnership with KnowYourOTCs.org. In exchange for our ongoing partnership helping families understand how to use OTC (over-the-counter) meds safely they have made a contribution to Digital Health at Seattle Children’s for our work in innovation. I adore the OTC Safety tagline, “Treat yourself and your family with care all year long.” Follow @KnowYourOTCs # KnowYourOTCs for more info on health and wellness.