ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- It's the middle of the night, and the sound of a wailing young child pierces the air. Her body feels as if it's on fire when you touch her forehead. What do you do next? The reality of dealing with a feverish child can send some parents into a panic.
Use a fast-working thermometer on potentially squirmy kids.
"I think every mom goes through that," says Heather Kelly, a mother of two young girls from Atlanta, Georgia. "Taking your kid's temperature can really make your life crazy, especially at 2 in the morning."
Dr. Jennifer Shu with the American Academy of Pediatrics sympathizes with parents such as Heather, but notes that you can't ignore a fever. "Sometimes, parents don't understand that the fever itself isn't harmful, but it could be a sign that there is an illness that could be causing the child some discomfort," she says.
Shu, an Atlanta-based pediatrician, frequently asks the parents of her small patients whether they have a thermometer in their home medicine cabinet. She says you don't need to spend a lot of money or buy a fancy model to get results.
"Because children are so active, you want a thermometer that is fast," Shu suggests. More tips for taking a child's temperature
Compared with old mercury thermometers, which are no longer recommended or sold in the United States, newer designs are easy to use and simpler to read. Pharmacies offer everything from pacifier thermometers to models that fit just inside the ear canal.
To get the most accurate reading, Shu advises, pick a thermometer that's appropriate for the child's age.
"Under 3 months, the best way to take a temperature is using a rectal thermometer," Shu says. "Between 3 months and 3 years, you can do a rectal thermometer, or some people like to do an under-the-arm, or axillary, thermometer."
Shu suggests that over the age of 3, children should be able to hold an oral thermometer under their tongue.
A normal, average temperature is considered to be 98.6, but Shu says that it's not unusual for temperatures to fluctuate a degree or two during the day.
She advises parents to call a doctor if a baby under 3 months old has a temperature over 100.4 degrees when taken rectally and if a child of any age has a fever higher than 104 degrees.
Parents may be tempted to reach for over-the-counter medicine such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to lower a child's temperature. Shu reminds parents: "Fever-reducing medicines aren't going to make the illness go away any faster, but they can make the child feel more comfortable." Health Minute: Watch more on taking a child's temperature. »
She tells parents to push fluids to help cool the child from the inside out. A lukewarm bath may also help in reducing a fever, but don't make the bath too cold.
A child's demeanor may help parents determine what action to take. "If your child is up and running around, then he's probably not sick enough to have any intervention no matter what the temperature," Shu says.
She concludes, "if you can't pin him down to get a temperature of any kind, then chances are he's not quite sick enough. It's OK to wait for him to calm down to take his temperature." E-mail to a friend
Judy Fortin is a correspondent with CNN Medical News.