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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced government officials and business owners to go to great lengths to attempt to control the spread of the virus. And while face masks, hand washing, and social distancing have all proven to be highly effective in preventing the spread of the disease, other methods, it turns out, are more for show. This includes temperature checks—which, according to one doctor, actually 'might be doing more harm than good,' thanks to the false sense of security they provide.

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While those forehead-scanning no-contact thermometers may be becoming a more common sight these days, they really only serve to put your mind dangerously at ease, James Hamblin, MD, writes for The Atlantic. 'The practice is sort of like spraying down the sides of buildings, showering football players in hand sanitizer, or deep cleaning an office carpet,' Hamblin notes. 'These things might make us feel safer, but they may not keep us safe if they actually cause us to let our guard down.'

© Provided by Best Life Staff check fever by digital thermometer before entering buildling

Temperature checks are the current standard for admission to anywhere from a school or an office building to a courthouse or boarding a flight. But, as Hamblin points out, there's little evidence to support that they're helpful in stopping the spread of COVID-19. That's largely because symptoms can vary greatly from patient to patient, and many people infected with coronavirus may not actually have a fever.

A recent paper published in the journal Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease found that temperature checks are particularly unreliable among a younger demographic. The researchers evaluated 84 men with COVID-19 with a median age of 21, taking their temperatures twice a day for two weeks starting on the day that each patient was diagnosed. With one exception, none of patients had a fever for longer than three days. In fact, 83 percent of the patients evaluated never even developed a fever at all.

Even widening the demographics, it's been proven that a fever is not always a symptom among COVID-19 patients. A July study in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report revealed that 20 percent of 164 symptomatic COVID-19 patients, whose median age was 50, did not have a fever.

Gallery: Five Signs Your Cough Could Be Coronavirus (ETNT Health)

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Other experts take issue with the fact that an elevated temperature may not be the result of coronavirus. A long list of health issues—including everything from the flu and food poisoning to Crohn's disease and sunburn—could be the cause, meaning that temperature checks could very well put out people who don't have COVID-19, Bruce Y. Lee, MD, wrote for Forbes.

These factors have led to a debate as to whether the now-common temperature check does what it's intended to do. 'There's never been any data to show that it's prevented any transmissions [of COVID-19],' Eric Topol, MD, executive vice president of Scripps Research, told Popular Science. 'The temperature check is of no value. It should be abandoned.'

Hamblin agrees, writing: 'If people are reassured by a fever check and compromise on the basics—wearing a mask, distancing, hand-washing—they put themselves and others at risk. This test has no ability to reassure people, but a real ability to mislead.'


Even the CDC, which doesn't outright dissuade business owners from using temperature checks, contends that they do not provide sufficient protection. Their general guidelines warn that 'screening and health checks are not a replacement for other protective measures such as social distancing.' And for more on why your experience with coronavirus may be different from others, check out Dr. Fauci Says This May Already Be Keeping You Safe From COVID.

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Renee M. Dougherty, D.O. contributes to topics such as Internal Medicine.


What is a fever?

A fever is the body’s way of warning you that something is off and can be a sign that your body is trying to fight an illness or infection. “For COVID-19, a high fever can be a presenting symptom, however there are other viruses to consider if fever is the only symptom,” says Renee Dougherty, D.O., a primary care physician with Hackensack Meridian Medical Group.

“Influenza is still prevalent and something to be considered in a patient with a fever. Additionally, some bacterial infections, such as strep throat can cause a fever as well, although additional symptoms are normally present.”

The CDC considers a person to have a fever when he or she has measured temperature of 100.4°F (38°C).

You’ve probably checked your temperature before and using a thermometer is a simple process, but do you know how to do it effectively?

What kind of thermometer should I use to take my temperature?

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The type of thermometer to use depends on age. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) using a rectum thermometer is what is recommended for infants and small children since they cannot hold a thermometer safely in their mouth. Children ages 4 and above and adults can use oral thermometers.

“It is important to note which thermometer is which, rectal thermometers should be designated as rectal only, and not interchanged to be used orally,” points out Dr. Dougherty. Forehead thermometers are another option as well, although most are substantially more expensive than an oral thermometer. There are utilized more so with young children, as they might find it difficult to use an oral thermometer.

How do I take my temperature to check for a fever?

  • Based on the guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP):
    • Mouth: Place the probe under the tongue and close the mouth. Use the lips to hold the thermometer tightly in place. Leave the thermometer in the mouth for 3 minutes or until the device beeps.
    • Rectum: Place petroleum jelly on the bulb of a rectal thermometer. Place the child face down on a flat surface or lap. Spread the buttocks and insert the bulb end about 1/2 to 1 inch (1 to 2.5 centimeters) into the anal canal. Be careful not to insert it too far. Remove after 3 minutes or when the device beeps.
    • Armpit: Place the thermometer in the armpit. Press the arm against the body. Wait for 5 minutes before reading.
    • Ear: Pull the top of the earlobe up and back. Place the tip of the thermometer in the ear-canal opening. (Be sure you are pointing the probe into the ear canal opening and not at the wall of the ear.) Press the button until it beeps. Make sure excess earwax isn’t built up before using this method as this can cause less accurate results.
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What’s the best way to clean a thermometer when I’m done?

Always clean your thermometer before and after using cool, soapy water or rubbing alcohol. Ear thermometer tips can be swiped with alcohol. Make sure to check the directions on the packaging to see how the manufacturer says the device should be cleaned.

When should I see a doctor about my fever?

The CDC recommends seeing your doctor if you experience one or more of the following:

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  • Temperature higher than 101°F that lasts more than 2 days or fails to respond at least partly to treatment
  • Temperature higher than 103°F under any condition
  • Headache with stiff neck
  • Severe coughing or vomiting
  • Pain taking a deep breath or difficulty breathing
  • Facial pain
  • Skin rash
  • Unexplained bruising or bleeding
  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Yellow or green discharge from the nose

This article has detailed information on when to seek care for a fever.

Temp Checker

Next Steps & Resources:

  • Meet our clinical contributor: Renee Dougherty, D.O.
  • To make an appointment with Dr. Dougherty or a doctor near you, call 800-822-8905 or visit our website.
  • I Think I Have Coronavirus, Now What?
  • 6 Tips to Wash Your Hands the ‘Right’ Way
  • Looking for guidance on how to reopen safely? Learn more about our Reopening America program.
  • CDC
  • WHO

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care

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