Sanitation Guide: How to Clean a Thermometer

Between the coronavirus pandemic and cold and flu season, we’re taking temperatures more often than ever this fall and winter. As a result, proper sanitation techniques are important to prevent accidentally contaminating someone with a used medical thermometer. In the guide below, we explain how to clean a thermometer, offer tips for sanitization and discuss considerations for getting an accurate temperature reading.

woman with face shield holding thermometer

How to Clean a Thermometer

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  1. Wash your hands to avoid contaminating the thermometer.
  2. If the thermometer has any debris on it, run it under cool water to loosen the debris and wash it off.
  3. Put a solution that’s at least 70 percent alcohol on a cotton pad or ball. You can also use a pre-sealed alcohol wipe. Thoroughly wipe down the entire thermometer, making sure that the entire surface comes into contact with the alcohol. Allow the alcohol to dry.
  4. If you are taking a temperature orally, you may want to rinse the tip of the thermometer after disinfecting it to remove the taste of the alcohol solution.
  5. Take the patient’s temperature according to the type of thermometer you are using.
  6. Remove any plastic coverings used to protect the thermometer and dispose of them properly.
  7. Sanitize the thermometer again by following steps 2 and 3. Let it air dry thoroughly before putting it away. Drying it with a towel can reintroduce germs and bacteria, which is why you should let it air dry.
  8. Wash your hands again.
teacher taking child temperature with thermometer

When to Clean a Thermometer

If you are using the same thermometer for multiple people, you should thoroughly sanitize it before and after using it on each patient. This goes for any kind of thermometer, even non-contact forehead thermometers that don’t actually touch the patient. (You should always use a dedicated thermometer to take temperatures rectally and keep it separate from other thermometers to avoid cross-contamination.)

If you are using the same thermometer for the same person, it’s not necessary to keep sanitizing it every time. However, you do need to be extremely careful not to mix up your thermometers to ensure that you use the same one for the same patient. When in doubt, always sanitize the thermometer before and after each use following the instructions above.

Whenever you clean the thermometer, be careful not to get water, alcohol or other liquids inside the battery compartment, which could compromise the thermometer. You should also make sure that you replace the batteries regularly according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Weak or old batteries can result in inconsistent or inaccurate readings, which defeats the purpose of a thermometer. Regularly test the thermometer and replace the batteries if readings become inconsistent.

man using a thermometer to take temperature

Why Is Taking a Temperature Important?

When your body fights infection and inflammation, your temperature becomes elevated. Thus, a higher temperature can indicate that your body is fighting off something, which is why temperature checks are being used as a proxy to determine whether or not someone has potentially been infected with COVID-19. (However, it’s important to note that not all people who have coronavirus are symptomatic, and this includes presenting a temperature.)

While the normal body temperature is considered to be 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) or 37 degrees Celsius (°C), everyone has a slightly different base temperature rate. You can get a good average of your base temperature by taking your temperature at several different times of the day over the course of several days. It’s perfectly normal for your temperature to vary from 1° to 2°F (½° to 1°C) throughout the day. Your temperature will generally be lower in the morning and higher later in the day or evening.

The type of thermometer you use can also affect the accuracy of the temperature reading. Generally speaking, digital thermometers are the most accurate, followed by electronic ear thermometers and finally forehead thermometers. Proper thermometer technique will also affect the accuracy of the reading, so make sure you follow the right method for the type of thermometer you are using. For more information about choosing the best thermometer, check out our guide to the many different types of thermometers.

Proper sanitation technique can help keep both you and your patients from swapping germs via a thermometer. Follow these guidelines for how to clean a thermometer as we head into cold and flu season and continue to deal with the COVID-19 virus.