All I wanted for Christmas … was a thermometer… the right kind.


Of all the data that makes a difference in what treatment or next steps I recommend when talking to a patient on the phone, a quantified fever, is among the most valuable. Yet, I can’t estimate the number of times that the person I am talking to doesn’t have a thermometer. This is a really big deal in terms of advice and patient safety.

Here is what I mean. A man called up after he had been hunting the previous weekend, and had experienced the usual bug and mosquito bites while out in the woods. Now he was experiencing a stiff neck, some overall muscle aches and wanted to know if he should go to the emergency department or make an appointment (within a day) with his doctor. For me, the next question was, “are you running a fever?”

He admitted he didn’t have a thermometer. Acting conservatively with regard to his health, we opted for the ED. Sure, we might have decided on that anyway, but knowing the patient’s temperature would have been invaluable. Now for those with children, you know that all fevers are not the same, but knowing the severity of fever (having a number) is critical.

So since Christmas is past and New Years resolutions are still prevailing, I’ll offer this… Get a thermometer.

Okay, you say, what kind?

Good question! Here are some thoughts before you make a purchase.

First, make sure you get one that you know will be reliable.

Old fashioned glass thermometers – there is a difference between oral and rectal – are some of the most reliable, though you do have to shake them before you start for accuracy. The down side is they can be uncomfortable and you need to make sure, if oral, that you have not ingested something hot or cold before using.

Oral and rectal digital thermometers work similarly but are easier to read. Some have softer flexible tips so they are more comfortable.

Now days they shouldn’t contain mercury, which presents some issues with disposal or breakage.

Tympanic thermometers are the “ear” thermometers. They are accurate, but require proper maintenance and some technical expertise.

Non contact forehead thermometers can be accurate, as they use infrared technology, but “targeting” the spot is tricky for some users.

Contact skin thermometers can be used accurately, but the quality of the surface of the skin is important to prevent inaccuracy.

There are others as well.

In short the “best” thermometer is one that is maintained and that the user knows how to use properly. So what should you do? Talk this over with your healthcare provider. Ask questions, and practice. That way, when you need to use it, you can be certain the information is accurate and reliable. It could make a difference in assuring proper diagnosis and treatment.

Be Well,

Matthew Minson, MD


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