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Placing your hand lightly on your child's forehead often provides the first clue that there's a fever. Then you'll need a more reliable way to confirm your suspicion. That's when a good thermometer is necessary--meaning one that's highly accurate. For babies under 3 months old, temperatures should be taken rectally, and any fever in this age group is typically considered an emergency. When in doubt, call the doctor.
But what type of thermometer should you choose? Some digital stick thermometers can be used to take a rectal, oral, or armpit temperature. Check manufacturer instructions before use. Also available are infrared devices, which are either designed to be used on the forehead, in the ear, or without any bodily contact at all (non contact).
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends taking a rectal temperature in infants and children younger than 3, because it's the most accurate measurement. An armpit temperature may be preferred for screening, but it's the least accurate. If the armpit temperature is above 99 degrees F, check it with a rectal temperature.
In children older than 3, taking an oral temperature is acceptable. An ear thermometer is another option for older babies and children. It gives quick results, but placing it can be tricky and you may not get the same temperature in both ears. Temporal artery thermometers, which read the infrared heat waves released by the temporal artery in the forehead, are acceptable for use in babies 3 months and older but only as a screening device for younger babies. Ask your child's doctor for advice.
Whatever method you choose, the thermometer you purchase should be easy to use and comfortable for your child. With this in mind, our recent tests of 10 fever thermometers not only measured accuracy but also included comments from 19 children ages 4 and up about their comfort level with each thermometer.
Digital thermometers have replaced the glass thermometers you may have grown up with. If you're still holding onto a glass mercury thermometer, the AAP advises getting rid of it. But don't just throw it into the trash. Mercury is toxic, so contact your doctor or local health department to find out how to dispose of it properly.
A digital stick thermometer is the most widely sold and cheapest type. Look for one with an LCD display that's easy to read and a start button that's easy to press. Digital thermometers rely on batteries to work.
Decide whether you want a rigid-tip or flexible-tip thermometer. Generally, children and adults who had their temperatures taken orally in our tests said that rigid digital stick thermometers were less comfortable than flexible types.
Many rigid-tip thermometers can be used to take underarm or rectal temperatures as well as oral temperatures. But not all flexible-tip thermometers can be used rectally, so you'll need to read the labels.
This type of oral digital thermometer looks like a pacifier, and it displays a reading after your baby sucks on it for 90 seconds or longer. We haven't tested this type of thermometer. But oral thermometer readings tend to be as much as 1 degree F lower than rectal thermometers, and aren't considered as accurate for children under 3.
Infrared thermometers measure heat being emitted by the body. Some infrareds can be difficult to position, but their digital readout takes just 1 to 3 seconds--among the shortest times of all thermometers tested. But these thermometers are also among the most expensive available--and they aren't necessarily more accurate than less-costly digital stick thermometers.
Tympanic thermometers measure the temperature inside the ear canal. This type of thermometer is quick and easy to use.
The top infrared thermometers in our tests were forehead models.
Not surprisingly, the children in our study preferred forehead-type thermometers to oral and ear types. One young participant expressed a common sentiment among testers of forehead thermometers: "It felt really smooth on my forehead and it glided easily."
A non-contact infrared thermometer works by holding the thermometer wand an inch or two from your sleeping child's forehead and pressing the button showing two red circles of light on the forehead. Then you move the thermometer closer to or farther from the forehead until the two red circles converge into one red circle and release the button, at which point the temperature is displayed. If your child is restless, it may be difficult to get an accurate temperature. The manufacturer says you can also use this thermometer to measure the temperature of a room or the baby's bath or bottle, but those features were not tested.
A large, backlit display and large digits can help you to easily read temperatures at night or in low light.
A line or mark showing an end point for insertion can prevent injury to your baby when you're taking a rectal temperature. Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully when using thermometers rectally. Thermometers were not tested rectally.
An audible beep or other signal indicating that the reading is complete means you won't have to keep checking your watch. Many thermometers have this feature.
Some models will beep when a temperature exceeds 99.5 degrees F. Others have visual fever alerts, with the display changing color (green, yellow, red) to indicate temperature level. These features were not tested.
Some models record the last temperature taken, so you can determine in which direction your baby's fever is going. Some also feature an automatic shutoff to preserve battery life. We didn't test these features.
Some thermometer buttons will respond to your touch with a sensation or a beep, so you'll know when the device has been turned on.
Owned by Procter Gamble, the company was founded in 1921 by Max Braun. The company specializes in foil shavers, beard trimmers, body groomers, epilators and lady shavers, hand blenders, hair-care appliances, and thermometers, among other products. Its thermometers are available wherever juvenile products are sold.
Founded by a Harvard-research scientist, Dr. Francesco Pompei, more than two decades ago, the company is based in Watertown, Mass. It is the creator of the first temporal artery thermometer—the Temporal Scanner, a noninvasive model. The company holds more than 100 U.S. and foreign patents. Available wherever juvenile products are sold.
Since 1947, Briggs Healthcare, the parent company of Mabis, has grown to be one of the largest privately held manufacturers and distributors of medical documentation, charting systems, and healthcare products, and the largest thermometer provider in the United States.
Lunsford Richardson, a pharmacist in Greensboro, N.C., created and sold 21 patent medicines under the “Vicks” name in the 1890s. Today, the company still sells colds-and-flu-relief products, along with humidifiers, thermometers, steam inhalers, and more. Available everywhere.
As simple as digital thermometers are, some have bells and whistles that you might find convenient, such as soft or curved tips, or beeps that tell you when they're in the right spot or when they've finished measuring the temperature.
A readout from a digital stick thermometer may take 10 seconds to more than 80 seconds, depending on the model. Infrared thermometer readouts take just 1 to 3 seconds, but may not be any more accurate than an inexpensive digital stick thermometer. So the infrareds may not be worth their cost--unless you have a child who simply won't stand for using the others.
Be aware that probe covers and protective case covers may pose a choking hazard, so thermometers and their accessories should be kept out of the hands of unsupervised children.