How to Check Your Child's Temperature for a Fever

Choosing the Right Thermometer and When to Call the Doctor

Father with sick children calling doctor
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Among all of the symptoms that kids may have, fever seems to be the one that parents worry about the most. You may wonder if a fever is too high and whether you are using the best method to check your child's temperature.

Does Your Child Have a Fever?

One of the first questions to consider about fever is whether your child even has a fever. You feel your child's forehead to see if he is warm or hot. This method may give you the right answer only about half of the time.

There are many ways to measure your child's temperature and you can ask your pediatrician what she recommends. Although one method is not necessarily better than another, it may be that your pediatrician prefers that you use an ear thermometer, temporal thermometer, or a mercury-free oral or rectal thermometer.

Keep these rules in mind depending on the type of thermometer used:

  • You don't have to add or subtract a degree when using a temporal thermometer or ear thermometer for it to match an oral thermometer.
  • Instead of adding or subtracting a degree when you report your child's temperature to your pediatrician, simply report the temperature and how you took it.
  • Rectal temperatures are usually about 1 degree higher than oral temperatures and 1 1/2 degrees higher than axillary temperatures, but since you don't have to add a degree with ear or temporal thermometers, talking about adding or subtracting a degree can be confusing.

Fevers and When to Call the Doctor

In general, parents worry much more about fever than most pediatricians do. Fever is usually just another symptom, like a runny nose or a cough. In general, you should usually call your pediatrician if your child has a temperature at or above:

  • 100.4 F for a child under 3 months
  • 101 F for a child between 3 and 6 months
  • 103 F for a child over 6 months old

Just as important as your child's temperature, also consider this other advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • In most cases, your decision to call your pediatrician also will depend upon associated symptoms such as a sore throat, earache, or a cough.
  • If a high fever persists for more than 24 hours, it is best to call even if there are no other complaints or findings.

Which Thermometer is Best?

Temporal thermometers (which you simply scan across your child's forehead) and ear thermometers are becoming very popular among parents because they are fast and easy to use, but they can be expensive. Simple, mercury-free, digital thermometers are much less expensive but do take longer to get a reading, which can be a problem if you have a fussy child who won't stay still for one to three minutes.

Keep in mind that there are pros and cons to most thermometers, including that:

  • Mercury-free rectal thermometers are the most accurate, but they can be uncomfortable, so should usually be reserved for infants under about 3 months old, although some people continue to use them until their child is 3 years old.
  • Mercury-free oral thermometers are also accurate, but they are usually reserved for older children since they must usually be held in the mouth for at least a minute or so. Most can also be used under the arm, as an axillary thermometer.
  • Ear thermometers are fast and easy to use, but they must be placed in the ear properly, can be expensive, and excessive ear wax may interfere with the reading. They may be used for children age 6 months and older.
  • Temporal thermometers are popular since they are fast and easy to use, but they can still be expensive. They may be used for children aged 3 months and older.
  • In younger infants, ear thermometers or under the arm (axillary) thermometers may not be accurate.

Tips on Checking Your Child's Temperature

Other things to know about checking your child's temperature include:

  • Most people consider a fever in younger children to be a temperature at or above 100.4 F, so a temperature of 100 in a 1-year-old is usually normal and not a low-grade fever.
  • You usually don't need to wake a sleeping child to check their temperature at night or give them a fever reducer if they are sleeping comfortably.
  • Unless your child has a heat stroke (such as from being in a hot car), it is unlikely that your child's temperature will get high enough to be dangerous.
  • When using temporal thermometers or ear thermometer, it can sometimes be helpful to take two or three readings and average them together.
  • If you want to test your thermometer's accuracy, consider bringing it to your next visit to your pediatrician and compare the reading it gives against the one that your pediatrician uses.

Most importantly, remember that your child's temperature doesn't usually tell you how sick your child is or even what he might have. He could have a high fever with a cold, the flu, strep throat, or with many conditions that are not due to an infection.

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