Divergent attitudes towards fever have led to a high level of inconsistency in approaches to its management. In an attempt to overcome this, clinical practice guidelines (CPGs) for the symptomatic management of fever in children have been produced by several healthcare organizations. To date, a comprehensive assessment of the evidence level of the recommendations made in these CPGs has not been carried out.
Searches were conducted on Pubmed, google scholar, pediatric society websites and guideline databases to locate CPGs from each country (with date coverage from January 1995 to September 2020). Rather than assessing overall guideline quality, the level of evidence for each recommendation was evaluated according to criteria of the Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (OCEBM). A GRADE assessment was undertaken to assess the body of evidence related to a single question: the threshold for initiating antipyresis. Methods and results are reported according to the PRISMA statement.
74 guidelines were retrieved. Recommendations for antipyretic threshold, type and dose; ambient temperature; dress/covering; activity; fluids; nutrition; proctoclysis; external applications; complementary/herbal recommendations; media; and age-related treatment differences all varied widely. OCEBM evidence levels for most recommendations were low (Level 3–4) or indeterminable. The GRADE assessment revealed a very low level of evidence for a threshold for antipyresis.
There is no recommendation on which all guidelines agree, and many are inconsistent with the evidence–this is true even for recent guidelines. The threshold question is of fundamental importance and has not yet been answered. Guidelines for the most frequent intervention (antipyresis) remain problematic.
Citation: Green C, Krafft H, Guyatt G, Martin D (2021) Symptomatic fever management in children: A systematic review of national and international guidelines. PLoS ONE 16(6): e0245815. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0245815
Editor: Ferrán Catalá-López, National School of Public Health, Institute of Health Carlos III, SPAIN
Received: January 6, 2021; Accepted: May 19, 2021; Published: June 17, 2021
Copyright: © 2021 Green et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Data Availability: All relevant data are within the paper and its Supporting Information files.
Funding: This work was supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF, Funding number: 01GY1731 and 01GY1905), the Software AG – Foundation and the University of Witten/Herdecke.
Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
Clinical observation has shown that fever is a physiologically controlled elevation of temperature with a strongly regulated upper limit (via protective endogenous antipyretics and inactivity of thermosensitive neurons at temperatures above 42˚C). It rarely reaches 41˚C and does not spiral out of control  as is feared by many parents and health professionals [2–4]. Divergent attitudes towards fever have led to a high level of inconsistency in approaches to its management. Many healthcare providers and parents view fever as a dangerous condition or a discomfort to be eliminated , despite evidence that fever is an evolutionary resource that aids in overcoming acute infections . Antipyretic treatment can be harmful: in 2006, accidental paracetamol overdose caused 100 deaths in the USA alone . A number of organizations have responded to this situation by developing clinical practice guidelines (CPGs) for management of fever in children with goals of guiding antipyretic treatment, responding to discrepancies between evidence and clinical practice, and diminishing irrational fear of fever and overzealous attempts at its suppression. Nevertheless, a published review addressing the quality of seven such CPGs  concluded that even guidelines judged as “high quality” are neither comprehensive in content nor in agreement with each other in their recommendations. Whether these conclusions apply to the full spectrum of guidelines for management of fever in children remains uncertain. Therefore, we have summarized all recommendations made by existing fever management CPGs, and assessed the level of evidence for each recommendation. This systematic review was not registered.
All methods were structured according to the PRISMA statement (S1 Checklist). Relevant medical guideline databases were identified through a google search for ‘medical guideline databases’ and then searched using the following search terms: ((((((children[MeSH Terms]) OR (pediatric[MeSH Terms])) OR (children[Title/Abstract])) OR (pediatric[Title/Abstract])) AND ((((treatment[MeSH Terms]) OR (therapy[MeSH Terms])) OR (management[Title/Abstract])) OR (intervention[Title/Abstract]))) AND ((((guideline[MeSH Terms]) OR (principles[MeSH Terms])) OR (guideline[Title/Abstract])) OR (principles[Title/Abstract]))) AND (((((fever[MeSH Terms]) OR (pyrexia[MeSH Terms])) OR (fever[Title/Abstract]))) OR (pyrexia[Title/Abstract])). 1. A search for CPGs (defined as documents on symptomatic fever management in children, issued by governmental organizations, pediatric associations or other healthcare groups) was conducted on the medical databases listed below, as well as websites of the above-mentioned organizations. 2. Google searches incorporating the country name in addition to the original search criteria were then carried out for each of the 195 countries in an attempt to identify any documents that had been missed by the previous methods. 3. A list of national pediatric associations was obtained from the International Pediatric Association’s website (http://ipa-world.org/society.php) and the website of each association was searched for relevant documents using the term “fever” in the language of each. All CPGs, whether intended for healthcare workers or parents,between the dates of 1995 and September 1, 2020 in the 57 languages available on Pubmed, were included. Only the latest CPG of each series was included. Articles that did not focus on the symptomatic management of fever, or were exact copies of other guidelines, were excluded. The process of screening the retrieved documents, as well as eligibility determination and inclusion in the review were carried out by one author.
The following databases were included in the search: PubMed, Google Scholar, National Guideline Clearing House (https://www.guideline.gov/), Canadian Medical Association CPG Infobase (https://www.cma.ca/En/Pages/clinical-practice-guidelines.aspx), Danish Health Authority National Clinical Guidelines (https://www.sst.dk/en/national-clinical-guidelines), Haute Autorite de Sante (https://www.has-sante.fr/portail/jcms/fc_1249693/en/piliers), German Agency for Quality in Medicine (http://www.leitlinien.de/nvl/), Dutch Institute for Healthcare Improvement (http://www.cbo.nl/), Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (http://www.sign.ac.uk/), National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance), Malaysia Ministry of Health (http://www.moh.gov.my/english.php/pages/view/218).
Data from all sources was extracted to an excel table by one reviewer. The table summarized guideline information (country, title, source, date); pharmacologic recommendations (threshold temperature for antipyretic treatment, recommended medications, posology) and non-pharmacologic recommendations (ice/cold/tepid sponge baths, hydration status, nutrition, ambient temperature, dress, covering, compresses, activity level, complementary/herbal recommendations) according to age group (S1 Table).
Quality of evidence assessment
For each recommendation, two authors conducted a search for the highest level of supporting evidence as defined by a modified version of the OCEBM Criteria (Oxford Centre for Evidence Based Medicine) . Systematic reviews of randomized trials provided the highest quality evidence (level 1); systematic reviews of observational and single randomized control trials, the second level of evidence (level 2); individual prospective observational studies and systematic reviews of case reports the third (level 3); individual case reports the fourth (level 4); and mechanistic explanations the fifth (level 5). Our modifications to the OCEBM included assigning systematic reviews of prospective observational studies to Level 2 and systematic reviews of case reports to Level 3, as well as relevant non-human studies of high quality to level 5. We also rated the rigour of systematic reviews using AMSTAR criteria (“A MeaSurement Tool to Assess systematic Reviews”) ; if the review met fewer than 7 out of the 11 AMSTAR criteria we rated the quality of evidence down one level (e.g. if a systematic review of randomized trials failed AMSTAR criteria we classified the quality of evidence as level 2 rather than level 1) . Apart from one main question (see below), we did not perform a formal quality assessment of each body of evidence. We created a table categorizing and comparing the CPG statements and the highest level of evidence found in the literature in support of each statement. Two authors independently rated the quality of the evidence and resolved disagreement through discussion.
GRADE assessment of the threshold question
We found conflicting statements and a lack of evidence regarding one fundamental category that affects almost all other recommendations. This concerns the question: “is there a temperature above which antipyresis should be attempted in acute febrile infections in children?”–in short: the threshold question. Since the NICE guidelines  have previously been judged to be of high quality , and make a recommendation to treat distress rather than body temperature, we thoroughly examined their data for evidence supporting a lack of temperature threshold and determined that the conclusion they came to was unjustified based on the evidence that they provided.
Two authors then independently attempted to address this question using the GRADE method . One author used the search terms: “fever AND temperature threshold AND children AND guideline AND permissive treatment” and identified a pilot RCT trial  and 8 papers related to threshold that were surveys and thus deemed ineligible for inclusion in a GRADE analysis. The other author used the terms: ((("acetaminophen"[MeSH Terms] OR "acetaminophen"[All Fields]) OR ("acetaminophen"[MeSH Terms] OR "acetaminophen"[All Fields] OR "paracetamol"[All Fields]) OR antipyresis[All Fields] OR ("ibuprofen"[MeSH Terms] OR "ibuprofen"[All Fields]) OR threshold[All Fields] OR ("antipyretics"[Pharmacological Action] OR "antipyretics"[MeSH Terms] OR "antipyretics"[All Fields] OR "antipyretic"[All Fields])) AND (harm[All Fields] OR benefit[All Fields] OR outcome[All Fields] OR ("mortality"[Subheading] OR "mortality"[All Fields] OR "mortality"[MeSH Terms]) OR ("epidemiology"[Subheading] OR "epidemiology"[All Fields] OR "morbidity"[All Fields] OR "morbidity"[MeSH Terms]) OR ("immune system phenomena"[MeSH Terms] OR ("immune"[All Fields] AND "system"[All Fields] AND "phenomena"[All Fields]) OR "immune system phenomena"[All Fields] OR ("immune"[All Fields] AND "function"[All Fields]) OR "immune function"[All Fields]) OR distress[All Fields])) AND ((peak[All Fields] AND ("body temperature"[MeSH Terms] OR ("body"[All Fields] AND "temperature"[All Fields]) OR "body temperature"[All Fields])) OR ("fever"[MeSH Terms] OR "fever"[All Fields]) OR ("fever"[MeSH Terms] OR "fever"[All Fields] OR "febrile"[All Fields]) OR ("fever"[MeSH Terms] OR "fever"[All Fields] OR ("elevated"[All Fields] AND "temperature"[All Fields]) OR "elevated temperature"[All Fields])) and identified 1704 papers.
The search procedure identified 586 documents, of which 441 were excluded due to lack of relevance or duplication after screening titles and abstracts. The remaining records (n = 145) were retrieved in full text. After examining the full text version, a further 71 documents were excluded because they were not CPGs.
Finally, 74 guidelines [11, 14–86] were included: three international guidelines as well as the national guidelines for 49 countries (multiple guidelines published by different associations exist in some countries) (S1 Table). Six countries follow the recommendations of another national or international guideline. Therefore, our study represents the fever management recommendations of at least 55 countries.
A detailed inventory of the categories and sub-categories of recommendations revealed conflicting advice in all categories. Furthermore, only a few CPGs provided references to substantiate their recommendations. Table 1 and Fig 1–3 summarize the results; for full details, see S1 Table.
Temperatures indicate the height of the given threshold.
Y-axis: numbers of guidelines reporting.
The search identified several articles addressing the impact of fever management on disease outcome in ICU patients. However, upon closer examination these studies either included a threshold value for rescue therapy and/or specifically excluded children . With the exception of two studies [162, 163] (Table 2), even the placebo arms of antipyretic RCTs operated with a threshold rescue value; and neither study reported outcomes related to temperature and morbidity/mortality. It is likely that permissive management of fever did not result in negative outcomes because this would have been reported but as the outcomes were not measured, the studies could not be included.
A comparison of worldwide fever management guidelines, revealed striking discrepancies with each other and with scientific literature on all parameters. The heterogeneity of the recommendations and the low quality of evidence on which they are based, point to a need for better data. Our findings are in line with the previous work of other authors and demonstrate, that many discordant suggestions in guidelines at national or international could be improved , in particular, our review stated this fact for recommendations for the use of antipyretis, relevant temperature parameters and treatments. In contrast to previous studies of CPGs, which showed what improvements are needed in terms of methodology, the applicability and the editorial independence domains , our review complements the previous work by the result of low or indeterminable evidence levels for recommendations and a very low level of evidence for the threshold for antipyresis. Through summarizing and assessing the available evidence, we provide an extensive basis for the development of a consensus and evidence based, interdisciplinary fever guideline.
Temperature threshold for antipyresis: Evidence vs. clinical practice.
The majority of CPGs recommend against treatment of fever itself, regardless of temperature. In the guidelines that give a threshold for antipyresis, there is little agreement about the temperature, with values ranging from 37.5˚C to 40.5˚C and no rationale provided. Our GRADE assessment suggests–with a very low quality of evidence–that there is no need for a threshold for antipyresis below 39.5 ˚C because that was the maximum threshold used in the studies [13, 161]. Whether a threshold is necessary remains unclear because there are no adequate studies. Despite the majority of guidelines recommending against giving antipyretics based on body temperature, studies of health care workers have shown that most believe that the risk of heat-related adverse outcomes is increased with temperatures above 40°C (104°F) and that more than 90% of doctors prescribe antipyretic therapy at temperatures >39˚C [164, 165]. Even in the UK, a country with longstanding guidelines that recommend only treating distress, a large study of pediatric ICUs has shown that the threshold for treatment of fever is still 38˚C and that 58% of care-givers asked, considered a fever of 39˚C unacceptable .
Pharmacologic treatment: Choice of drug, dosing, adverse effects.
Paracetamol is the only medication recommended by all guidelines and 17 give it preference over ibuprofen. Although high quality evidence (Level 1) has shown that they are both effective in lowering temperature, the evidence for effectiveness in distress reduction (the more relevant outcome) is lower (Level 3). There is no justification for paracetamol being the sole, or debatably, even the first-choice antipyretic as no systematic review or RCT comparing it with ibuprofen has shown a superior effect or safety profile. 15 out of 30 RCTs comparing paracetamol and ibuprofen concluded that ibuprofen is superior in effect while the remainder found no significant difference in either effect or safety profiles . This raises the question as to whether paracetamol should be relegated to second-line [91, 167] because while the safety profiles of both drugs are equivalent at therapeutic doses, the toxic level of paracetamol is reached much sooner and causes more deaths than supratherapeutic doses of ibuprofen [7, 168]. Adverse effects caused by ibuprofen generally resolve, although there have been deaths due to triggering of asthma as well as long-term complications from toxic epidermal and soft tissue necrolysis . Also, despite high level evidence [132–134] that combining/alternating antipyretics leads to little additional benefit in temperature control, is associated with a higher risk of supratherapeutic dosing and has not been shown to reduce discomfort, the rate of alternating antipyretics in medical practice is 67% . Given that parents misdose antipyretics in almost half of cases with 15% using supratherapeutic doses , arriving at a consensus regarding medication choice and dose, along with methods of communicating this to parents would be a valuable contribution towards standardization of fever management. For a full discussion of dosage recommendations, see e-Supplement.
Antipyretics for prevention of febrile seizures: No evidence.
Several systematic reviews and RCTs have shown that antipyretics are ineffective in preventing febrile seizures (Level 1 [137–139]). Interestingly, one trial found that antipyretics are ineffective in lowering the temperature at all during febrile episodes that are associated with febrile seizure . However, a recent study concluded that rectal paracetamol administration significantly decreased the likelihood of recurrent febrile seizures during the same fever episode .
Nonpharmacologic measures: Fluid intake, bath, rubs and compressions.
Many guidelines recommend an adequate/increased intake of fluids in order to avoid dehydration. Caution should be observed in universally recommending increased fluids as it may cause harm . No direct published evidence was found regarding the optimal amount or type of fluid intake during fever. Proctoclysis is only mentioned in one guideline though the literature suggests that it could be helpful in maintaining hydration status (Level 4), resulting in increased well-being and fewer hospitalizations [159, 160, 171–178]. Nutrition is mentioned in 25% of the guidelines with a majority in agreement that children should not be forced to eat during fever. We did not identify any studies on this.
In terms of other physical recommendations, several seemingly opinion based, contradictory approaches are mentioned: cool to warm room temperatures, ventilated to unventilated rooms, bundling to undressing the child completely, and bedrest to normal activity. A systematic review that attempted to analyze these factors  found that there were no studies investigating physiological interventions or environmental cooling measures as separate interventions.
Given the lack of evidence, one may appeal to knowledge of the fever process to determine that appropriate use of physical measures depends on the fever phase: As the fever is rising, the child should be kept warm or even actively warmed–thus reducing the energy needed to develop fever and thereby discomfort. Once the child is warm all the way to its feet and starts sweating, layers of sheets and clothing can be carefully removed (level 5 ).
Despite high level evidence (level 1) that tepid sponging increases discomfort and should be avoided [150, 151], 61% of guidelines are still in favor of its use. Recommendations about compresses show a similar distribution (63% in favor) though fewer guidelines address the topic and little directly applicable research is available. The decrease in temperature that results from external cooling is of short duration. A mismatch between the hypothalamic set point and skin temperature leads to peripheral vasoconstriction and metabolic heat production, which results in shivering and increased discomfort of the child. The initial small reduction in body temperature may not be worth the potential discomfort and the use of these methods indicates a continued focus on the reduction of body temperature rather than distress.
Recommendations on complementary treatments only appear in three guidelines, despite their widespread use by parents and health professionals. The evidence for the proposed treatments is low (Level 4)–perhaps partially because most forms of alternative medicine do not advocate fever suppression as a treatment goal. With regard to well-being, the scientific literature suggests greater or equal efficacy and satisfaction compared with conventional treatments, with high safety and tolerability [157, 158, 179–181].
Other potential issues not yet included in the published guidelines.
Digital media: None of the guidelines mention screen exposure. Most countries are beginning to formulate recommendations on child screen exposure . We point to the need for recommendations on screen use in illness.
Parental care by interaction and empathy and relationship: None of the guidelines mention the quality of parental care during illness, which may be the most important factor for both immediate well-being and long-term health . Finding ways to reduce fever phobia by education or counseling intervention may contribute to relational and empathetic fever management and facilitate a significant reduction of distress [184, 185].
Limitations and strengths
Only 74 guidelines were retrieved which, considering the high frequency of fever, is fewer than expected. We cannot exclude that other documents exist as some may not be online and our attempts to contact these countries’ pediatric societies per email did not yield any additional documents. Out of a responsibility for resource investment, we refrained from duplicate assessment of guideline eligibility, risk of bias for the individual intervention and duplicate data extraction (except for the GRADE assessment, which was duplicate), judging that minor changes would have no effect on the overall guideline assessment results. Due to a lack of information regarding the developmental procedure of most guidelines, an overall assessment of quality (using AGREE II) was not feasible. Therefore, we chose to examine the supporting evidence for each of the recommendations using the OCEBM criteria  and discuss the results based on the highest level of evidence. This is a unique strength of this review.
A comparison of worldwide fever management guidelines, revealed some uniform themes and recommendations supported by a high level of evidence, but also striking discrepancies and a low level of evidence supporting most recommendations. So far, we can conclude that some recommendations should be part of all guidelines:
- Parents and carers should be educated about the benefits of fever, and how to recognize and act on othersigns of danger and judge the condition rather than fever alone.
- In an otherwise healthy child with an acute febrile infection, treatment should focus on reduction of distress rather than temperature (Level 5). The social and physical environment should be optimized before considering use of antipyretic medications (Level 5).
- Antipyretics should not be combined (Level 1), or routinely alternated (Level 1), and be used, if at all, only as long as the child appears distressed (Level 5).
- Antipyretics should not be given with the intention of preventing febrile seizures (Level 1)
- External cooling may increase discomfort and metabolic strain (Level 1).
None of the CPGs include statements about the potential benefits of fever (level 1). Studies are needed to assess whether educating parents and carers (i.e. about the side effects of antipyretics, the positive immunological effects of fever and how to recognize signs of danger) influences outcomes. The question as to whether or not there should be a threshold for initiating antipyresis must be met with solid evidence.
Jana Wachmeister, M.Sc., is thanked for systematic literature searches and data curation.
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