Tried &Tested: Hot Competition

Taking your temperature should be simple, but some thermometers leave you hot under the collar. Our panel measures up a selection
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The Independent Culture
ANYONE WHO has attempted to play doctor or nurse to a feverish member of the family knows that a thermometer is seems like an essential tool. The problem is that we tend not to think about such things until one of the family is ill; then we rush out to buy the first we see.

Most of us, thus, need a gadget that can be left to gather dust among the sticking plasters but will then give an instant and accurate measurement when a feverish crisis arises. Yet balancing the need for accuracy are two salient factors: expense and the at times questionable reliability of tempera-ture. Young children, for example, can run high temperatures during quite insignificant illnesses, and low temperatures at death's door. (Consult your doctor if in doubt!)

Although 37C is often quoted as the norm, children's temperatures tend to be the highest and those of elderly people the lowest. Thermometer manufacturers advise us to "practise" taking temperatures of family members when well, and to keep a record of their individual "baseline" temperature.


Only two members of the panel were conveniently feverish during the trial: six month old baby Josephine Kenton and myself (both quickly recovered). Also taking part were adults Nicholas and Joy Allen, Emma Bartlett and Gail Kenton and 18-month-old Elliot Hudd.


We looked for thermometers which gave a quick reading; were acceptable to the patient; and imparted confidence through consistency.


pounds 2.59

Developed with babies and children in mind, this small, flimsy piece of coated black plastic looks not unlike photographic film. You hold it at both ends against the patient's forehead and wait for a green blob to appear in one of six bars representing 35C to 40C inclusive. (Fahrenheit is also marked.) Feverscan was the easiest thermometer to use with the screaming, wriggling, hot and unhappy Josephine; but her temperature never went over 39C, nor below 37C, and meanwhile there were no smaller graduations to monitor progress. "We gave up after a while," said her mother Gail Kenton, "I knew she was hot, but I was more concerned with her other symptoms." Emma Bartlett found her own inspection (in a mirror) frequently revealed two green stripes adjacent to each other. "What's that supposed to mean?" she complained. While Nicholas Allen said: "I just couldn't have confidence in the technology,".


pounds 2.15

Nicholas Allen was the only tester to speak positively about this traditional, dual scale, fine glass thermometer with mercury, which can be used to take oral, rectal or axillary (under the arm) temperatures. It comes with a British Standard Certificate of Examination, which gives a candid explanation of the instrument's drawbacks: it takes a while - between two and four minutes - although nothing is wrong with leaving it in for longer; and in high or low air temperatures, a thermometer used in the mouth "will give a misleading value for deep body temperature". The experience of the panel revealed that all sorts of external factors affect temperature readings (climate, activ-ity, hot drinks etc), so were not too concerned with this; they objected mostly to "squinting at a fine silvery line" (Gail Kenton). Nicholas Allen, however, said it was "just a knack" - achieved by rotating the glass so that the lens front magnifies the mercury.


pounds 2.90

Constructed along the same lines as the clinical thermometer, the Easy Read version is fatter, with bigger markings and numbers in both Fahrenheit and centigrade. It depends on the same rotational technique to magnify the mercurial line, but was found easier to read. "It isn't as fine and cruelly pointed as the clinical one," said Gail Kenton, "but you can still shake it down by swinging it through the air in a whip-cracking motion, which will appeal to some." Both the clinical and Easy Read thermometers require re- setting in this way. Neither is deemed suitable for children under eight (except under-arm).


pounds 34

Top marks went to this little known German brand of tympanic thermometer, which uses the latest infra-red technology to take the patient's tem-perature (in centigrade) next to the ear drum within three seconds. Tympanic membrane temperature corresponds most closely to that of the brain, which reflects core temperature. A rounded plastic casing allows you to hold the thermometer like a gun. And pressing the start button with the probe inserted in your ear can be alarming, but only Joy Allen disliked the idea of having something inserted in her ear to the extent that she wouldn't use it. Surprisingly, baby Elliot offered his ear up to the new toy with some enthusiasm. A "probe cover" protects the measurement probe. (Irritatingly, you have to change these with each use - 20 come with the machine, then you have to buy more.) Adult panellists thought that the beeps (which tell you when to start and stop measuring) were "a brilliant feature" (Emma Bartlett) of this model in comparison with the Braun Thermoscan. And the instructions are simple.


pounds 39.99

The most expensive of the thermometers tested, Braun's Thermoscan is a tympanic thermometer which works along the same lines as the Omron, only faster. Yet the difference between one second and three did not impress panellists, who were disappointed with the perceived complexity of the instrument. "Our house is obviously too cold," said Emma Bartlett, for whom the Thermoscan registered "Error 1" - "not within its operating range, 16C to 40C." The Allens alternated between Errors 3 and 4 (the "activation button hasn't been held down for a full second"; or "the internal temperature of the thermometer is changing too rapidly") and felt exasperated. Gail Kenton said, "The concept is sound; but the instructions are over-elaborate. It just seems harder to use than the Omron."


pounds 7.49

If economy is a more serious consideration than the ability to use a thermometer on young children, then Boots digital was thought to be "excellent value" by most, "with none of the anxiety attached to reading a line of mercury before it falls away from its true position" (Gail Kenton). Nicholas Allen said that digital thermometers in general "are notoriously inaccurate, as far as I remember from using them at university". But Emma Bartlett was delighted with it. "It's simple: press the button, it's on. Put it in your mouth when the centigrade symbol appears; take it out when it beeps. Bob's your uncle." Repeat readings only varied by half a degree, which convinced us of its accuracy.


Feverscan, Clinical, Easy Read and Digital thermometers available from branches of Boots; Omron 01273 495 033; Braun 0541 505100. !