What is a Clinical Thermometer?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Ear thermometer.
Ear thermometer.

A clinical thermometer is a tool for measuring temperature, designed for clinical use in humans or animals. There are a number of considerations integrated into the design of such thermometers, including the need to reduce the risk of cross-contamination between patients. Many drug stores carry ones that are designed for home use by people who want to be able to monitor their temperature. These products are also available from medical supply catalogs.

Forehead thermometer.
Forehead thermometer.

Historically, this type of thermometer was made with mercury, but this element is rarely seen in clinical use in modern times. The problem with a mercury thermometer is that the device can break, spilling mercury and posing a risk of human or animal health. Such thermometers can also be difficult to use, as they need to be held in place for several minutes, and they need to be swung to reset, as the thermometer is designed to hold the mercury in place once a maximum temperature has been reached so that the device can be taken out for an accurate reading.

Oral thermometer.
Oral thermometer.

Clinical thermometers can be inserted into the mouth, ear, anus, or armpit, depending on the design. Some are also designed to attach to the forehead. Given the fact that they are sometimes inserted into rather intimate locations, sterilization is important. Another important issue is calibration, as it is important to get an accurate reading when a few degrees can make a big difference. Thermometers must also be easy to use and read to ensure that people are likely to get accurate measurements.

Sterilization and calibration are important when working with clinical thermometers.
Sterilization and calibration are important when working with clinical thermometers.

Some companies get around the sterilization issue with single use designs. In this case, the thermometer is designed to be used on one patient and then discarded. Other companies design thermometers that can be thoroughly wiped down, and which are intended to be used with probe covers. Probe covers are disposable plastic covers that slip over the part of the thermometer being inserted, reducing the risk that microorganisms will be passed between patients.

Clinical thermometers no longer use mercury.
Clinical thermometers no longer use mercury.

A clinical thermometer is carefully calibrated at the time of manufacture. Some come with calibration guides that people can use to recalibrate them in their own practices, while in others cases, the thermometer can be sent back to the manufacturer. For cheaper thermometers, it can make more sense to confirm that the thermometer is not reading properly and simply discard it, rather than spending time recalibrating it.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a InfoBloom researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a InfoBloom researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

julies

@John 57 - Yes I remember! And then you needed to make sure you weren't too close to the counter when you reset so you wouldn't break the thermometer.

With the newer types of thermometers I really like the single use ones - especially in a doctors office or hospital. It's just nice to know that nobody else has used it before you.

John57

I must say, I sure am thankful for the new digital thermometers. Does anybody else remember feeling like you were pulling your arm out of its socket just trying to get the mercury down?

Plus, it is so much easier to read the actual numbers than trying to guess exactly where the line stopped. My kids don't have any idea what those mercury thermometers were like!

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    • Ear thermometer.
      Ear thermometer.
    • Forehead thermometer.
      Forehead thermometer.
    • Oral thermometer.
      Oral thermometer.
    • Sterilization and calibration are important when working with clinical thermometers.
      Sterilization and calibration are important when working with clinical thermometers.
    • Clinical thermometers no longer use mercury.
      Clinical thermometers no longer use mercury.