Experts say a high fever is also the leading symptom of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus spreading throughout the world. Even though people are displaying a wide range of symptoms, nearly 88% of patients have developed a fever, according to a February report of a joint World Health Organization-China mission. The second most common symptom, a dry cough, came in at around 68%.
With hospitals filling up quickly, it’s important to monitor any symptoms you develop at home. You’ve probably checked your temperature before and using a thermometer is a simple process, but do you know how to do it effectively? It’s critical to get it right, especially when a difference in just a few degrees could spell danger.
We asked Jennifer Wilbeck, D.N.P., A.P.R.N., ER nurse and director of the emergency nurse practitioner specialty at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, to explain how to check for a fever at home—and what to do if there isn’t a thermometer on hand.
What kind of thermometer should I use to take my temperature?
“It depends on the age of the person whose temperature you are checking,” Wilbeck says. “If it is an infant, certainly up to three months, you want to use a rectal thermometer. Even in children all the way up to 2 or 3 years old, we’d want to continue to use a rectal thermometer.”
The reason is simple: Rectal thermometers are highly reliable and don’t require children to hold an object in their mouths. Children above 4 and adults can stick to oral thermometers, Wilbeck says.
Ear and forehead thermometers are also fine to use for older age groups, and they all work—choosing one comes down to price and availability. Steer clear of the old glass-and-mercury models, which Wilbeck notes are now banned in much of the U.S.
Can I eat or drink before using a thermometer?
When you’re feeling under the weather, you’re probably sipping tea, gulping water, and drinking soup, but this can throw off the accuracy of your results.
If you’re eating or drinking, “you want to wait about 15 minutes before you take your temperature,” Wilbeck says, since this can influence the temperature of your mouth and alter the reading.
Okay, ready: How do I take my temperature to check for a fever?
To get an accurate oral reading, a thermometer can’t just go anywhere. “It is going to go underneath the tongue, toward the back of the mouth,” Wilbeck advises. (Think: one of those “pockets” on either side of your mouth). That’s where it’ll be easiest to detect a fever.
Hold the thermometer steady with your lips (not your teeth) while breathing through your nose for at least 3 minutes, or until the device beeps, per the National Institutes of Health.
While 98.6°F is considered a normal temperature, each person has their own “normal” temperature, which fluctuates up and down throughout the day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a fever as 100.4° F or higher.
What’s the best way to clean a thermometer when I’m done?
With any kind of thermometer, Wilbeck recommends checking the packaging to see how the manufacturer says the device should be cleaned. “But I cannot think of an instance,” she adds, “where just rubbing it down with some alcohol would be inappropriate.” Then, simply let it air dry.
Is it safe for multiple people to share a thermometer?
“Most of us do share thermometers,” Wilbeck says. “If you’re cleaning it very well afterwards, you should be OK.” Even if you sanitize your device after each use, you can also invest in disposable covers to reduce contact with germs.
Another important thing to remember when sharing thermometers? Don’t forget to label them: “If you use two thermometers, one rectal and one oral, you need to indicate which is which,” Wilbeck warns, “because you certainly don’t want to utilize those without keeping them separate.”
Can I check for a fever without a thermometer?
If you don’t have one on hand and can’t find one nearby, pay attention to other symptoms, Wilbeck says. Body chills and aches often accompany a fever.
Feeling warm to the touch is another red flag, but it’s not always accurate. “Sometimes, you can have someone use the back of their hand—it’s more sensitive to temperature—certainly there’s some validity to that,” Wilbeck says. If your skin feels much hotter than someone close to you, it could be a sign that you’re running a fever.
When should I see a doctor about my fever?
If you’re experiencing difficult symptoms or have a chronic illness, it’s important to pay close attention to your fever. The CDC recommends seeing your doctor if you experience one or more of the following:
Temperature higher than 101°F that lasts more than 2 days or fails to respond at least partly to treatment (like these fever remedies)
Temperature higher than 103°F under any condition
Headache with stiff neck
Severe coughing or vomiting
Pain taking a deep breath or difficulty breathing
Unexplained bruising or bleeding
Yellow or green discharge from the nose
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