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How Do Tympanic Thermometers Work?

Updated February 21, 2017

Referred to by lay people or non-medical professionals as an "ear thermometer," a tympanic thermometer uses infrared radiation and a thermopile detector at the tip of the instrument to measure the tympanic temperature inside the ear. The outside of the thermometer is covered in plastic, housing inside 36-gauge copper-constantan wires laid and soldered side by side. A patient wears a probe connected to the thermometer when he is unconscious. When the patient is alert and awake, the medical professional can insert the thermometer into the ear for a rapid temperature read.

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How Do They Work?

Referred to by lay people or non-medical professionals as an "ear thermometer," a tympanic thermometer uses infrared radiation and a thermopile detector at the tip of the instrument to measure the tympanic temperature inside the ear. The outside of the thermometer is covered in plastic, housing inside 36-gauge copper-constantan wires laid and soldered side by side. A patient wears a probe connected to the thermometer when he is unconscious. When the patient is alert and awake, the medical professional can insert the thermometer into the ear for a rapid temperature read.

Advantages of a Tympanic Thermometer

Tympanic thermometers are often used to measure temperature while patients are under the influence of anaesthesia during surgery as well as in the intensive care unit of a hospital. They are preferred to other types of temperature gauges because they can rapidly assess a patient's temperature accurately and with no discomfort to the patient who wears the temperature probe. Tympanic thermometers can measure a temperature in under 2 seconds. Oral and rectal thermometers take longer.

Disadvantages of a Tempanic Thermometer

Many non-medical professionals have a hard time getting accurate readings with these thermometers, which may lead them to making inaccurate diagnoses when using them to measure fever. In fact, a 2005 study conducted by some physicians at the Department of Pediatrics and Stollery Children's Hospital in Canada showed that when parents used tympanic thermometers at home they failed to detect fever about 25 per cent of the time (see link in Resources). Additionally, some models must be reset or recalibrated after each use, which many find to be a disadvantage.

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