Tools & Calculators
A thermometer is an essential piece of equipment for any parent’s medicine cabinet. With a myriad of options available, however, it can be difficult to choose which type may be the best for your family. To select an appropriate design, it is important to understand the positive and negative aspects of both oral and ear thermometers.
Body temperature is not one specific number. A person’s temperature can range up to a full degree throughout the day, with the lower readings in the morning and higher readings after vigorous activity. Even a normal reading can vary from one person to another, with most children’s body temperatures falling between 97.7 and 99.1 degrees Fahrenheit. Most pediatricians agree that any temperature over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit is classified as a fever.
When taking a child’s temperature, be sure to read the thermometer’s instructions carefully, whether using an oral or an ear model. Clean the instrument thoroughly to prevent spreading germs to others. It is best to take the temperature more than once to be certain of the accuracy of the reading. If possible, measure the child’s temperature throughout the day when they are healthy to establish what their normal reading ought to be. Regardless of the type of thermometer, a reading should never be taken immediately after a hot bath or physical activity, both of which could elevate the child’s temperature and provide an inaccurate result. It is always advisable to have a backup thermometer available, whether the same style or a different design, in case the first thermometer does not work or provides inconsistent results.
Oral thermometers are placed under the tongue, slightly away from the center, and held for several minutes to obtain a temperature reading. They come in different styles, from glass mercury models to more modern digital varieties. Glass designs should not be used for children under three years old, because if they bite down the thermometer could break. Mercury, which is still used in some models, can be toxic, and the glass shards are dangerous. Digital thermometers are slightly more expensive and run the risk of having low batteries, which could result in inaccurate readings. Some oral thermometers come in a pacifier design, which may be useful for younger children but are typically less accurate.
Oral thermometers have the benefit of being very accurate if placed properly in the mouth. It is important to teach a child how to use a thermometer correctly, so they will know how to hold it under their tongue for the nearly three minutes necessary for a good reading. Digital thermometers take less time, and indicate when the reading is complete with a beeping or buzzing sound. If a child is heavily congested, however, an oral thermometer may not be appropriate because they cannot breathe through their nose long enough for an accurate reading. Furthermore, restless children (especially those who are sick) may be unable to remain still long enough for the reading. To properly use an oral thermometer, be sure to shake it down as if you are shaking water off the instrument before each use. This resets the gauge; otherwise the reading will be inaccurate. Failing to shake down a glass thermometer is the most common cause of reading errors. Digital thermometers may reset automatically, or can be reset at the touch of a button. Other inaccuracies result from not leaving the thermometer in place long enough or placing it incorrectly. An oral thermometer should not be used immediately after the child has had anything to eat or drink, because the temperature of the food can influence the reading.
Ear thermometers, also called aural thermometers, measure infrared radiation, or heat, from the eardrum. These thermometers are far more expensive than more common oral designs, but they also have several distinct advantages. An ear thermometer can record an accurate reading in only a few seconds, which is a great benefit for an irritable or restless child. They can also be used while the child is sleeping, but never use an ear thermometer in an ear that has been lying on a hot pillow, because that will distort the reading. Ear thermometers are also useful when the child is congested and cannot breathe through their nose long enough to use an oral thermometer.
To use an ear thermometer, be sure that the ear is free from heavy wax buildup that could block the heat and lower the reading. Because the ear canal has a natural curve, it is necessary to gently tug on the earlobe to insure that the probe fits snugly in the ear and is pointed toward the eardrum, but never force it to fit tightly. An ear reading will be slightly higher than an oral reading because of the nature of the instrument. Ear thermometers are not recommended for very young children (under six months old), because their ears may be too small for an accurate fit. If a child has a bad ear infection, an ear thermometer may be too uncomfortable to use, though it will not change the infection. As with oral thermometers, inaccurate readings can occur if the child has recently taken a hot bath or been very physically active. If the child has been wearing a hat over their ears or has been lying on a pillow, wait about fifteen minutes to ensure a more reliable reading.
Whether choosing a classic oral thermometer or a more advanced ear model, it is important to choose the best type for your family’s health needs. When used correctly, a thermometer is an essential tool to keep all children happy and healthy, so that other medicines can stay where they belong–in the medicine cabinet.