A block randomized clinical trial to compare the efficacy of tepid sponging with the use of paracetamol in febrile children was undertaken at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, Blantyre. Eighty children aged between 6 and 54 months with axillary temperatures of between > or = 38.5 degrees C and < or = 40 degrees C and a clinical diagnosis consistent with upper respiratory tract infection and/or malaria were block randomized to receive either oral paracetamol (15 mg/kg) or tepid sponging. Children receiving tepid sponging were sponged from head to toe (except the scalp) by leaving a thin layer of water on the body. If the body became dry it was repeated and continued until the axillary temperature fell to < 38.5 degrees C. Axillary temperature and assessment of discomfort (convulsions, crying, irritability, vomiting and shivering) were recorded every 30 minutes for 2 hours. A significantly greater and more rapid reduction of fever was demonstrated with paracetamol than with tepid sponging. Tepid sponging without antipyretics is often used to reduce fever, but our results suggest that this is effective only during the 1st 30 minutes. Paracetamol is clearly more effective than tepid sponging in reducing body temperature in febrile children in a tropical climate.