Heart rate and respiratory rate in predicting risk of serious bacterial infection in febrile children given antipyretics: prospective observational study

Eur J Pediatr. 2023 May;182(5):2205-2214. doi: 10.1007/s00431-023-04884-7. Epub 2023 Mar 3.


Clinical algorithms used in the assessment of febrile children in the Paediatric Emergency Departments are commonly based on threshold values for vital signs, which in children with fever are often outside the normal range. Our aim was to assess the diagnostic value of heart and respiratory rate for serious bacterial infection (SBI) in children after temperature lowering following administration of antipyretics. A prospective cohort of children presenting with fever between June 2014 and March 2015 at the Paediatric Emergency Department of a large teaching hospital in London, UK, was performed. Seven hundred forty children aged 1 month-16 years presenting with a fever and ≥ 1 warning signs of SBI given antipyretics were included. Tachycardia or tachypnoea were defined by different threshold values: (a) APLS threshold values, (b) age-specific and temperature-adjusted centiles charts and (c) relative difference in z-score. SBI was defined by a composite reference standard (cultures from a sterile site, microbiology and virology results, radiological abnormalities, expert panel). Persistent tachypnoea after body temperature lowering was an important predictor of SBI (OR 1.92, 95% CI 1.15, 3.30). This effect was only observed for pneumonia but not other SBIs. Threshold values for tachypnoea > 97th centile at repeat measurement achieved high specificity (0.95 (0.93, 0.96)) and positive likelihood ratios (LR + 3.25 (1.73, 6.11)) and may be useful for ruling in SBI, specifically pneumonia. Persistent tachycardia was not an independent predictor of SBI and had limited value as a diagnostic test. Conclusion: Among children given antipyretics, tachypnoea at repeat measurement had some value in predicting SBI and was useful to rule in pneumonia. The diagnostic value of tachycardia was poor. Overreliance on heart rate as a diagnostic feature following body temperature lowering may not be justified to facilitate safe discharge. What is Known: • Abnormal vital signs at triage have limited value as a diagnostic test to identify children with SBI, and fever alters the specificity of commonly used threshold values for vital signs. • The observed temperature response after antipyretics is not a clinically useful indicator to differentiate the cause of febrile illness. What is New: • Persistent tachycardia following reduction in body temperature was not associated with an increased risk of SBI and of poor value as a diagnostic test, whilst persistent tachypnoea may indicate the presence of pneumonia.

Keywords: Antipyretics; Child; Fever; Serious bacterial infection; Vital signs.

Publication types

  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Antipyretics*
  • Bacterial Infections* / complications
  • Bacterial Infections* / diagnosis
  • Bacterial Infections* / drug therapy
  • Child
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Fever / complications
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Pneumonia*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Respiratory Rate / physiology
  • Tachypnea / complications


  • Antipyretics