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Merck Manual

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How to Take a Child’s Temperature

How to Take a Child’s Temperature

A child's temperature can be taken from the rectum, ear, mouth, forehead, or armpit. It can be taken with a digital thermometer. Digital thermometers are easier to use and give much quicker readings (and usually give a signal when they are ready). Glass thermometers containing mercury are no longer recommended because they can break and expose people to mercury.

Rectal temperatures are most accurate. That is, they come closest to the child's true internal body temperature. For a rectal temperature, the bulb of the thermometer should be coated with a lubricant. Then the thermometer is gently inserted about 1/2 to 1 inch (about 1 1/4 to 2 1/2 centimeters) into the rectum while the child is lying face down. The child should be kept from moving.

Ear temperatures are taken with a digital device that measures infrared radiation from the eardrum. Ear thermometers are unreliable in infants under 3 months old. For an ear temperature, the thermometer probe is placed around the opening of the ear so that a seal is formed, then the start button is pressed. A digital readout provides the temperature.

Oral temperatures are taken by placing a digital thermometer under the child's tongue. Oral temperatures provide reliable readings but are difficult to take in young children. Young children have difficulty keeping their mouth gently closed around the thermometer, which is necessary for an accurate reading. The age at which oral temperatures can be reliably taken varies from child to child but is typically after age 4.

Forehead temperatures (temporal artery temperatures) are taken with a digital device that measures infrared radiation from an artery in the forehead (the temporal artery). For a forehead temperature, the head of the thermometer is moved lightly across the forehead from hairline to hairline while pressing the scan button. A digital readout provides the temperature. Forehead temperatures are not as accurate as rectal temperatures, particularly in infants under 3 months old.

Armpit temperatures are taken by placing a digital thermometer in the child's armpit, directly on the skin. Doctors rarely use this method because it is less accurate than others (readings are usually too low and vary greatly). However, if caretakers are uncomfortable taking a rectal temperature and do not have a device to measure ear or forehead temperature, measuring armpit temperature may be better than not measuring temperature at all.