What is an Ear Thermometer?

Sara Schmidt

Body temperature can be obtained through a variety of instruments. An ear thermometer is a device that measures the body's temperature through insertion into the ear. Also known as an aural thermometer or tympanic thermometer, it measures body heat through infrared light.

Large amounts of ear wax buildup may interfere with the readings of an ear thermometer.
Large amounts of ear wax buildup may interfere with the readings of an ear thermometer.

An ear thermometer is considered a very convenient device to use. It does not include the waiting or additional precursors for use that many other thermometers have. Instead, it involves simply placing the device within the ear canal, pushing its button, and receiving a nearly instantaneous reading within the instrument's electronic display window. Typically, results are available after one second.

Ear thermometers work by measuring the heat released from the eardrum.
Ear thermometers work by measuring the heat released from the eardrum.

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When treating the common cold or flu, a digital ear thermometer can help provide a quick body temperature reading. This can help people to decide whether or not a physician is needed. It can also be helpful in routinely monitoring the temperature of children who fight having a thermometer beneath their arms for a lengthy amount of time, or who simply cannot sit still.

Ear thermometers can also come with a blinking light to indicate a reading is complete. Parents whose children cry during a temperature reading may find this helpful if they normally cannot hear the beep of a digital thermometer. Many brands also come with sanitation covers, making it convenient to quickly take multiple temperatures on different people.

Depending on the brand, the features of ear thermometers can vary. Some come with a pre-warmed tip to prevent discomfort during insertion. Some say that this tip helps ensure accuracy, as probes can cool after being removed from the ear.

Some concerns about accuracy surround this instrument. Large amounts of ear wax buildup may interfere with its results during use. Some scientists postulate that the device may not provide accurate readings if a patient has an ear infection as well. Ear thermometers may not be helpful in diagnosing ear infections, either. Some people report variations in temperature between left and right ears.

The ear thermometer can also generally vary in accuracy up to half a degree. Though not considered an amount for alarm in adults, infant temperature, particularly in newborns under two months of age, typically has to be very specific for an accurate diagnosis. Some studies also indicate that the younger a patient is, the less accurate an ear thermometer reading will be. Doctors recommend that rectal thermometers continue to be used when ascertaining a baby's temperature.

If a child's ears are too small to accommodate an ear thermometer, do not force the probe. This can result in an injury. Doing so is also unlikely to provide an accurate reading.

Discussion Comments


I've been told ear thermometers aren't as accurate as the mercury or even digital oral thermometers. Can anyone confirm or comment on that? If it's just a couple of tenths of a degree, I don't guess it matters, but I am curious to find out how accurate they really are, rather than just speculation.


An ear thermometer has to be one of the best things ever invented for a mom with young children. They only take about 10 seconds, if that long, and the mom doesn't have to go through the ordeal of taking the baby's temperature rectally. They are a godsend.

I have a friend who has a child with autism, and there's no way they can use an oral thermometer with him. The idea of a rectal thermometer is too awful to think about with him, but an ear thermometer is perfect for him. His mom can get his temperature without disturbing him at all. That's a blessing.

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