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A matter of degrees
The right way to take your child’s temperature

» What’s a fever?

» Thermometer basics

Cold-medicine alert

Several major companies have recently pulled over-the-counter cold and cough medications for infants, including those from Tylenol, Dimetapp and Pediacare, from store shelves. Last September, U.S. health officials advised removing “consult your physician” from cold- and cough-medicine labels for young children and adding a warning that children younger than age 2 shouldn’t be given these products. To learn more, go to the American Academy of Pediatrics Web site at

Your child looks flushed and is warm to the touch. You suspect he or she has a fever but, to know for sure, you’ll need a thermometer. Your drugstore is filled with a dizzying array of thermometer options. But which will give you the most accurate reading and how do you use it? Find out with the following fever facts and temperature-taking tips.

What’s a fever?

A fever is any body temperature that’s higher than normal. While everyone’s temperature varies and can change depending on the time of day and activity, most pediatricians consider temperatures above 100.4° F significant. Before you do anything, assess your child’s behavior. Is he or she acting normal? If so, you may not have to treat the fever—which is the body’s way of fighting infection.

If, however, your child seems listless, isn’t eating or drinking or complains of other symptoms such as a sore throat, call the doctor. Your child could have a viral or bacterial illness. Also, call your doctor if your child is younger than 3 months and spikes a fever of 100.4° F or more or you have an older child with a fever over 104° F.

Thermometer basics

Your thermometer largely depends on your child’s age:

  • Newborn to 3 months. For this group, you’ll get the most accurate reading with a digital rectal thermometer. To use:
    1. Clean the end with alcohol or soap and water, and rinse with cool water.
    2. Lubricate the end with petroleum jelly.
    3. Hold your child’s belly down across your lap, and insert the thermometer a half to one inch into the anus. Hold until you hear the thermometer beep.

  • 3 months to age 4. For this group, use a tympanic thermometer (for the ear) or a digital oral thermometer (placed under the armpit). Neither is as accurate as oral or rectal thermometers, but they’re easy to use.

    To use a tympanic thermometer, gently place the thermometer in the ear and press the start button, holding it in place until you hear the beep.

    To use a digital oral thermometer, place the thermometer under your child’s armpit. Press your child’s arm against his or her chest to keep the thermometer steady. Activate the start button and wait for the beep.

  • Ages 4 and up. With their increased dexterity and understanding, kids ages 4 and older are good candidates for a digital oral thermometer. To get the most precise reading:
    1. Clean the end with alcohol or soap and water, and rinse with cool water.
    2. If your child has had a hot or cold drink, wait at least 15 to 20 minutes before taking his or her temperature.
    3. Turn on the thermometer and place it under his or her tongue toward the back. Remove when you hear the beep.

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