Chapter 2: Temperature

Methods of Measurement

Methods of measuring a client’s body temperature vary based on developmental age, cognitive functioning, level of consciousness, state of health, safety, and agency/unit policy. The healthcare provider chooses the best method after considering client safety, accuracy, and least invasiveness, all contingent on the client’s health and illness state. The most accurate way to measure core body temperature is an invasive method through a pulmonary artery catheter. This is only performed in a critical care area when constant measurements are required along with other life-saving interventions.

Methods of measurement include oral, axillary, tympanic, rectal, and dermal routes.

Oral temperature can be taken with clients who can follow instructions, so this kind of measurement is common for clients over the age of four, or even younger children if they are cooperative. Another route other than oral (e.g., tympanic or axillary) is preferable when a client is on oxygen delivered via a face mask because this can alter the temperature.

For children younger than four, axillary temperature is commonly measured unless a more accurate reading is required.

Rectal temperature is an accurate way to measure body temperature (Mazerolle, Ganio, Casa, Vingren, & Klau, 2011). The rectal route is recommended by the Canadian Pediatric Society for children under two years of age (Leduc & Woods, 2017). However, this method is not used on infants younger than thirty days or premature infants because of the risk of rectal tearing. If the rectal method is required, the procedure is generally only used by nurses and physicians.

Dermal routes are alternative methods of measurement that may be used in some agencies and practice areas. This method can involve holding the device and sliding it over the skin of the forehead and then down over the temporal artery in one motion. Dermal strips can also be placed on the forehead to measure skin temperature, but are not yet widely used, and the accuracy of this method has not yet been verified. More recently, there has been an increase in non-contact infrared thermometers particularly in the era of COVID-19 and other highly transmissible diseases. Depending on the type, these thermometers can be held at a short distance from the forehead or temporal area to measure temperature. Alternatively, some handheld thermal scanners that use an infrared camera can be held at a greater distance to screen large masses of people. Please refer to the manufacturer’s suggested reference range for non-contact infrared thermometers and thermal scanners.

Test Yourself!

While watching the interactive video on measuring temperature with a non-contact infrared thermometer, apply your knowledge and critical thinking skills to answer the questions throughout the video. Please note: there is no sound in this video.

Points to Consider

The accuracy of measurements is most often influenced by the healthcare provider’s adherence to the correct technique.

The following pages detail the normal temperature ranges and techniques associated with oral, axillary, tympanic, and rectal temperature methods.

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Vital Sign Measurement Across the Lifespan - 2nd Canadian Edition by Jennifer L. Lapum, Margaret Verkuyl, Wendy Garcia, Oona St-Amant, and Andy Tan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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