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What Is a Digital Ear Thermometer?

A digital ear thermometer might be easier for a child to accept.
Many people consider digital ear thermometers safer than mercury thermometers.
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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2014
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A digital ear thermometer is a handheld device that measures an individual’s body temperature via a short probe which is inserted into his ear canal. Advocates of the digital ear thermometer hold that the device is noninvasive, works quickly, is hygienic, and is safer to use than mercury thermometers. Many health experts question the value of the digital ear thermometer, however, arguing that it is difficult to properly place and thus prone to false readings, and that it is not safe for use in infants. Additionally, digital ear thermometers tend to be more expensive than the more accurate digital oral thermometers.

Usually, a digital ear thermometer consists of a tube-shaped, plastic body which is held in the fist and a short probe which protrudes from the top of the body. Once this probe has been inserted into the ear, a “trigger” on the thermometer’s body is pressed. After a period of a few seconds to a minute, depending on the thermometer model, a digital screen on the body displays a temperature reading.

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Advocates of the digital ear thermometer hold that the device has several advantages. First of all, it is less invasive than rectal and oral thermometers, potentially making a child more likely to cooperate when his temperature must be taken. Secondly, the fastest models can provide a temperature reading in a matter of seconds. Additionally, many models can be fitted with disposable plastic probe covers, adding a hygienic element to these devices. Further, digital ear thermometers lack the safety hazards of glass thermometers, which, when broken, can leak mercury.

Many health experts question the value of the digital ear thermometer, however. First of all, these experts argue, it can be difficult to properly position an ear thermometer within the ear canal. Improper positioning as well as the presence of excessive wax in the ear can cause an ear thermometer to provide a false reading, which can in turn lead a caregiver to under- or over-estimate the severity of an individual’s fever. Additionally, the size of most digital ear thermometers’ probes can potentially cause injury to infants' ears.

Furthermore, most digital ear thermometer models tend to be slightly or even significantly more expensive than digital oral thermometers. While this difference in cost may lead some consumers to assume that digital ear thermometers are superior to digital oral ones, many health experts advise that oral thermometers are actually more accurate. In addition, a large proportion of health experts argue that taking the temperature rectally provides the truest reading, especially in infants.

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