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The lowdown on thermometers
An accurate thermometer is an essential first-aid tool for parents. Feeling warmth on your child's forehead can alert you to a problem, but it doesn't tell you the whole story. In babies younger than 4 months, even a relatively low fever can be a sign of a serious illness or infection.
Types of thermometers
Rectal thermometers consistently give the most accurate results, which is vital for newborns. They are found in any grocery or drugstore and are very inexpensive. However, they may require a bit of waiting, which can make a sick child cranky or force you to wake him up to get a temperature. Parents are also frequently nervous about hurting their child by taking a rectal temperature, although modern thermometers are generally designed so that it’s impossible to insert them too far.
Multiuse thermometers read body temperature with a sensor that's usually found in a small metal tip at one end. With this type of thermometer, you can take your child's temperature orally, rectally, or under the arm (axillary). These are among the simplest and least expensive of thermometers, and they give highly accurate readings, particularly when used rectally. Like rectal-only thermometers, however, these require parents to disturb sleeping/sick children to get a reading (although children have been known to sleep through underarm readings).
Temporal-artery thermometers, a.k.a. forehead thermometers, are a newer and pricier kind. They use an infrared scanner to measure the temperature of the temporal artery; a quick swipe across the forehead reveals temperature. They're safe, convenient, and comfortable and are now used in many hospitals. In the past, they were recommended only for children 3 months and older, but research suggests they're accurate at any age. For children under 3 months, double-check the reading with a rectal thermometer.
Ear thermometers, or tympanic thermometers, use an infrared ray to measure the temperature inside your child's ear canal. They're generally quick, safe, and not at all uncomfortable. They can be a little trickier to use than other thermometers, though, because they have to be inserted exactly right to get an accurate, consistent reading. They're recommended for children 6 months and older.
Behind-the-ear thermometers are similar to temporal-artery thermometers, except they get their readings from the carotid artery close to the hollow behind your ear. These types of thermometers are some of the newest on the market, so the jury’s still out on the accuracy of their readings, but they can be used on a sleeping child.
Oral thermometers are best for kids at least 4 years old who can safely hold a thermometer under their tongue for the time required to get an accurate reading.
Under-the-arm (axillary) thermometers read the temperature in your child's armpit. They're easy, convenient, and safe, but not as accurate as rectal, ear, or temporal thermometers. They can be used with a child of any age.
Smart thermometers, the newest type of thermometer on the market. are designed to interface with phones or other electronic devices. Some have a wearable patch that you place on your baby’s underarm to read and wirelessly transmit temperature; others involve a thermometer that takes an oral, rectal, underarm, or ear reading and plugs into your phone or uses Wi-Fi to send data. Temperature can be tracked or graphed over time, and data can be easily shared with medical professionals or caregivers.
Pacifier thermometers are, as the name suggests, pacifiers with a built-in thermometer. Many doctors don't recommend them because the readings are less accurate than readings from other types of thermometers.
What to look for when buying
Is it age appropriate? Rectal thermometers and multiuse thermometers used rectally can be used on a child of any age, but they're highly recommended for newborns because they give the most accurate reading. In babies younger than 4 months, a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher can be a sign of a serious infection or illness.
Since rectal thermometers can be uncomfortable, look for one with a flexible tip. Most have a wide handle that won't let you insert it more than an inch. (Inserting it farther can perforate your child's rectum.) Multiuse thermometers may not have a design that prevents over-insertion, so take care when using them.
Will the method work for your child? A child of around 2 and up is more likely to protest a rectal thermometer and move around, raising the risk of injury or an inaccurate reading. And if you have a tot who’s especially squirmy, it may be difficult to get an accurate reading with an ear or rectal thermometer, so consider a temporal-artery thermometer that involves just one quick sweep across your child's forehead.
Important safety notes
Soaking in warm water can raise body temperature for up to an hour, so don't take your child's temperature right after a bath. If you have a baby under 4 months or a child of any age who seems sick, however, don't wait to take his temperature. Call your doctor or seek medical attention right away.
If you have a multiuse thermometer, designate it for just one area (rectal, oral, or under the arm) to avoid spreading bacteria.
For more information, see our article on how to take your child's temperature or talk to your child's doctor. And always follow the directions for the thermometer carefully.
What it's going to cost you
You can find oral, rectal, and under-the-arm thermometers for under $10. Temporal-artery thermometers run $25 to $100, while behind-the-ear thermometers cost $20 to $45. Ear thermometers range in price from $15 to $60. Pacifier thermometers range from $5 to $15, and smart thermometers from $15 to $70.