Alternating and combined antipyretics for treatment of fever in children

When they are ill with infections, children often develop a fever. The fever with common viral illnesses, such as colds, coughs, sore throats and gastrointestinal illness, usually lasts a few days, makes children feel unwell, and is distressing for the children, their parents, or other caregivers.

Paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen) and ibuprofen lower the child's temperature and relieve their discomfort. This review evaluates whether giving both treatments together, or alternating the two treatments, is more effective than giving paracetamol or ibuprofen alone.

In September 2013, we found six studies, involving 915 children, that evaluated combined or alternating paracetamol and ibuprofen to treat fever in children.

Compared to giving ibuprofen or paracetamol alone, giving both medications together is probably more effective at lowering temperature for the first four hours after treatment (moderate quality evidence). However, only one trial assessed whether combined treatment made children less uncomfortable or distressed and found no difference compared to ibuprofen or paracetamol alone.

In practice, caregivers are often advised to initially give a single agent (paracetamol or ibuprofen), and then give a further dose of the alternative if the child continues to have a fever. Giving alternating treatment in this way may be more effective at lowering temperature for the first three hours after the second dose (low quality evidence), and may also result in less child discomfort (low quality evidence)

Only one small trial compared alternating therapy with combined therapy and found no advantages between the two (very low quality evidence).

Authors' conclusions: 

There is some evidence that both alternating and combined antipyretic therapy may be more effective at reducing temperatures than monotherapy alone. However, the evidence for improvements in measures of child discomfort remains inconclusive. There is insufficient evidence to know which of combined or alternating therapy might be more beneficial.Future research needs to measure child discomfort using standardized tools, and assess the safety of combined and alternating antipyretic therapy.

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Background: 

Health professionals frequently recommend fever treatment regimens for children that either combine paracetamol and ibuprofen or alternate them. However, there is uncertainty about whether these regimens are better than the use of single agents, and about the adverse effect profile of combination regimens.

Objectives: 

To assess the effects and side effects of combining paracetamol and ibuprofen, or alternating them on consecutive treatments, compared with monotherapy for treating fever in children.

Search strategy: 

In September 2013, we searched Cochrane Infectious Diseases Group Specialized Register; Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL); MEDLINE; EMBASE; LILACS; and International Pharmaceutical Abstracts (2009-2011).

Selection criteria: 

We included randomized controlled trials comparing alternating or combined paracetamol and ibuprofen regimens with monotherapy in children with fever.

Data collection and analysis: 

One review author and two assistants independently screened the searches and applied inclusion criteria. Two authors assessed risk of bias and graded the evidence independently. We conducted separate analyses for different comparison groups (combined therapy versus monotherapy, alternating therapy versus monotherapy, combined therapy versus alternating therapy).

Main results: 

Six studies, enrolling 915 participants, are included.

Compared to giving a single antipyretic alone, giving combined paracetamol and ibuprofen to febrile children can result in a lower mean temperature at one hour after treatment (MD -0.27 °Celsius, 95% CI -0.45 to -0.08, two trials, 163 participants, moderate quality evidence). If no further antipyretics are given, combined treatment probably also results in a lower mean temperature at four hours (MD -0.70 °Celsius, 95% CI -1.05 to -0.35, two trials, 196 participants, moderate quality evidence), and in fewer children remaining or becoming febrile for at least four hours after treatment (RR 0.08, 95% CI 0.02 to 0.42, two trials, 196 participants, moderate quality evidence). Only one trial assessed a measure of child discomfort (fever associated symptoms at 24 hours and 48 hours), but did not find a significant difference in this measure between the treatment regimens (one trial, 156 participants, evidence quality not graded).

In practice, caregivers are often advised to initially give a single agent (paracetamol or ibuprofen), and then give a further dose of the alternative if the child's fever fails to resolve or recurs. Giving alternating treatment in this way may result in a lower mean temperature at one hour after the second dose (MD -0.60 °Celsius, 95% CI -0.94 to -0.26, two trials, 78 participants, low quality evidence), and may also result in fewer children remaining or becoming febrile for up to three hours after it is given (RR 0.25, 95% CI 0.11 to 0.55, two trials, 109 participants, low quality evidence). One trial assessed child discomfort (mean pain scores at 24, 48 and 72 hours), finding that these mean scores were lower, with alternating therapy, despite fewer doses of antipyretic being given overall (one trial, 480 participants, low quality evidence)

Only one small trial compared alternating therapy with combined therapy. No statistically significant differences were seen in mean temperature, or the number of febrile children at one, four or six hours (one trial, 40 participants, very low quality evidence).

There were no serious adverse events in the trials that were directly attributed to the medications used.

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