How to Choose the Best Medical Thermometer

Mother reads thermometer while calling doctor

The humble medical thermometer is one of the most important diagnostic tools that any medical professional (or human being) can have on hand. Temperature readings are important because an abnormally high or low temperature can help indicate many different health problems. Taken with other symptoms, abnormal temperature readings may indicate fever, infection, an allergic reaction, hypothermia and heatstroke, among other conditions.

The generally accepted average temperature, as taken orally, is 98.6°F (37°C). This temperature reading will vary a little depending on what kind of thermometer you use and what kind of reading you take, so you have to account for that when measuring temperature. So what type of medical thermometer will get you closest to that “magical” number of 98.6°F? In this guide, we break down the six main types of thermometers below and explain the pros and cons of each to help you choose the best medical thermometer for your needs.

Girl holds thermometer in mouth

Digital Thermometer

The fastest and most accurate option, these thermometers take your temperature through a metal probe and display temperature readings on a digital screen. A digital thermometer can take your temperature in three ways: orally (in the mouth), rectally (in the bottom) and axillary (under the arm). This should go without saying, but do not use the same digital thermometer to take temperatures rectally and orally.

There are two main models of digital thermometers. The first is an inexpensive but less sturdy single-piece design. The digital screen is located on the handle, which tapers down to the probe. Medical professionals may want to invest in the second kind of model, which is more durable and less flimsy. In these models, the probe connects to the device via a cord, and the thermometer displays readouts on the large LCD screen. Some models can also be wall-mounted, such as this Welch Allyn thermometer.

Women reads baby temperature using electronic ear thermometer

Electronic Ear Thermometer

A childhood classic, these thermometers measure temperature by sensing the infrared heat from inside the ear. They take a reading a bit faster than digital thermometers, which is why electronic ear thermometers are often used with wiggling little kids. However, ear thermometers may not deliver accurate results for small babies three months old or less because of their very small, curved ear canals. Also, if the patient has ear wax, that can affect the reading and lead to an inaccurate temperature.

Forehead Thermometer

Sometimes called temporal artery thermometers, forehead thermometers are placed against the temporal artery in the head to measure temperature. Somewhat like electronic ear thermometers, they take a temperature reading by measuring the infrared heat coming off the temporal artery. Forehead thermometers may integrate the sensor into the handle (these models look kind of like electric razors). The sensor may also extend out from the handle so that it looks like a “gun.” These models work very quickly and usually don’t have to be placed on the skin, making them non-contact. However, they don’t usually deliver as accurate a reading as taking the temperature orally or rectally.

Mother uses forehead thermometer on baby standing in crib

Digital Pacifier Thermometers

Some parents use these thermometers to take temperature readings in small infants without their knowing it. However, digital pacifier thermometers are not very accurate, as it’s difficult for infants to hold them still long enough to get a correct reading. Recommend that parents use a digital or electronic ear thermometer instead.

Plastic Fever “Strip” Thermometer

These thermometers are applied to the forehead and give a readout on the strip by changing color. While these thermometers have some applications, they are not very accurate and should not be used in medical settings.

Glass and Mercury Thermometer

The original medical thermometer design, glass and mercury thermometers have fallen out of popularity with the rise of digital technology. The glass housing meant that the thermometers were breakable, which wasn’t ideal since mercury is toxic. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working to phase out mercury thermometers from many different industries, not just the medical field. If you still own a mercury thermometer, don’t just throw it into the trash. Instead, research hazardous waste disposal options in your area. Choosing a medical thermometer can be a cheap, quick purchase or a big investment. Whatever you’re looking for, we offer a wide range of medical thermometers to cater to any budget and preferences, so browse our selection today.