Updated May 31, 2014

Study: Best Thermometers

Thermometers are deceptively simple. A basic tool of parenting, a thermometer is as necessary to have around the house as a hammer. Yet these devices, which fit in the palm of a hand, actually place a lot of pressure on parents. Having the right one, with accurate readouts, can avoid unnecessary trips to the emergency room and keep tabs on a child's sickness.

Yet the market is cluttered with all different kinds thermometers. Underarm thermometers, digital thermometers, head strip thermometers - even pacifier thermometers - exist and are sold across wide-ranging price points. Does expensive imply greater accuracy? Does a generic store brand indicate it’s widely used by everyone?

Here’s the first step: Begin your search for the right thermometer based on the age child who will be using it. That way you can narrow your choices.

For the following three thermometer styles, broken down by specific age groups, we included a price-conscious option for each category to help guide you in your purchase.

Best Thermometers for Newborns and Infants: Rectal

Hands down, the mostly widely recommended method for assessing a temperature in this age group is by taking a rectal temperature (the American Academy of Pediatrics has consistently recommended using one for children from 0 to age 3). Accuracy is especially important with this age group when it comes to fevers. Your doctor’s office will quote a baseline temperature several digits long for when you should bring your baby in for an exam or not – those additional decimal points make a difference with babies.

While it’s true that any digital thermometer with a sensory point can, technically, be a rectal thermometer, your safest bet is to buy one that specifies it’s for rectal use, to prevent any injury. (Be sure to consult the manufacturer’s user guide when using one.)

Keep in mind: Definitely pass on the infant pacifier and infant ear thermometers. While these two options are more ascetically pleasing, they are far less accurate than a temperature taken rectally. Plus, ear thermometers are not recommended for babies under 6 months.

What we like: Vicks Baby Rectal Thermometer

Why we like it: Excellent price points at a wide variety of retailers.

Drawbacks: We’ve seen complaints that newly purchased models didn’t work right out of the box, so there may be some quality control issues at the manufacturing level.

Best Thermometer for Toddler: Temporal Scanners

Swipe this gadget across your child’s forehead (above the eye) up into the hairline and ta-da, temperature taken! This style of thermometer is by far the easiest way to take a young child’s temperature, but keep in mind it’s important to do at least three readings. Then use the highest of the three readings as the temperature. That’s because temporal scans are imprecise but still more accurate than underarm or in-the-ear methods.

What we like: The Exergen TemporalScanner Temporal Artery Thermometer

Why we like it: Ease of use and wide availability. Exergen states its thermometer is “supported by more than 50 peer-reviewed published clinical studies” and is used in more than “half of hospitals and pediatricians office in the U.S.”

Drawbacks: Some versions of Exergen’s thermometers do not have a colorful light screen, but some models have a backlight.

External review: Parents.com (Parents Magazine)

Keep in mind: Steer away from the tympanic or ear thermometers, as they are less accurate. Earwax can influence temperature readouts and so can the wrong placement of the thermometer in the year.

Best Thermometer for Kids: Digital Stick Thermometers

For this age group, where the patients are old enough and cooperative enough to hold the thermometer themselves, go for a digital stick thermometer, which is best used under the tongue. These devices can also be used under arm, although it’s considered less accurate. Digital stick thermometers are easy to use, they’re found at every pharmacy and chain retailer, and they are easy to store, pack, and clean.

What we like: CVS Flexible Tip Digital

Why we like it: This model has a flexible tip.

Drawbacks: Some consumers report that their local CVS stores do not carry the replacement batteries even though it’s a CVS brand.

External review: The Washington Post

Keep in mind: Skip the pricy, non-contact infrared thermometers for this age group. A comparative study published by the National Institute of Health found this style to be too weak in its measurement values compared to other types.

You can spend $100+ on a thermometer but you don’t need to!

Many temperature models offer a wide variety of features: memory storage for last recorded temperatures, fever alerts, and backlist displays, to name a few. As a parent, your job is to get an accurate reading to pass on to the doctor – it’s not to use the readout to make a diagnosis. Let the doctor’s office spend the extra bucks on souped-up models, and save your bucks for the medical co-payments.

By sticking to what’s relevant to the age group you’re shopping for, you’ll be able to bypass the confusing bells and whistles, or the aesthetically pleasing but less accurate devices, and get to the model that’s at the right price point for you.

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