Even if you keep your medicine cabinet pretty sparse, a good thermometer should always be part of your home health toolkit. Your body temperature can tell you a lot about your health, from when it’s time to stay home and rest to when it’s time to call your doctor and seek more urgent medical care—and as we head into flu season (and continue battling new strains of COVID), this info is more important than ever.
“It is important to have a working thermometer at home, especially if you live with children,” says Janice Johnston, MD, chief medical officer and co-founder at Redirect Health. “At-home thermometers are quick and easy to use tools to determine if someone is feeling unwell. Having a thermometer at home gives [you] this information fast, so you know when to call your doctor and can get the right care.”
Thankfully, thermometers don’t have to be complicated or expensive to give you this critical information. A basic digital thermometer you place under your tongue can perform just as well as a fancy, no-touch infrared one. That said, even buying a basic digital thermometer can get confusing. Do you need one with an app? What about an ear thermometer versus a forehead one? And what do all those colors on the display screen mean when it comes to interpreting your results?
For the most part, these questions are a matter of personal preference, but sometimes it really is better to choose one type of thermometer over another depending on who will be using it and why. The Health team tried 25 thermometers both at home and in our Lab, from budget-friendly and high-tech devices to ones that excel at taking a specific type of reading (i.e. only from the ear). Based on our testing, here are the best thermometers on the market in 2022.
Why We Like It: It’s easy to use and read, giving results in less than 10 seconds.
It’s Worth Noting: There are no extra features here—this is bare minimum device.
It’s not fancy, but that’s what we like about the Vicks Speed Read Thermometer: it just gets the job done, quickly and accurately. In testing, we found this device to start up with a simple press of a button and liked how speedy the results were. It beeps when it’s done taking a reading, and offers “Fever Insight Technology” that turns the backlit display either green, yellow, or red depending on your reading (instantly alerting you to a fever, if you’ve got one).
The thermometer also comes with a case that covers the probe, which keeps it clean between uses and protects it from damage. In our drop test, the case came off, but neither the case or thermometer showed any signs of wear and tear.
Simply put? It’s budget-friendly, easy to operate, durable, and gives a quick and accurate reading time after time, making it a great choice for kids and adults of all ages.
Price at time of publication: $11
- Type: Oral, rectal or underarm
- Power Source: Coin battery
- Dimensions: 4.5”L x 1.5”W
- Weight: 2 oz
- Response Time: 8 seconds
- Extra Features: Colored display for normal, mild, and high temp readings
Why We Like It: The smart features don’t overcomplicate the use of this thermometer, which gives a clear and accurate reading available on the device and in the app.
It’s Worth Noting: The app is nice, but technically unnecessary.
We were impressed by pretty much everything about the Kinsa Smart Thermometer, but especially the fact that its higher-tech options didn’t get in the way of us taking a quick and easy temperature reading. In fact, downloading the app took up the bulk of the setup time, with the thermometer itself being easy to use right out of the box.
In testing, we liked that the Kinsa gave a quick result on a large, bright display with fever color-coding. We also found that our readings were accurate and consistent over time. The results are given on both the device itself and within the app, which does make the app a little unnecessary, but we think if you have multiple kids, being able to keep track of temperatures in the app is a helpful feature.
“This was by far my favorite [thermometer]: it has a flexible design for durability, a helpful app, a bright color indicator, a single button to take the temp, and the ability to store a family’s individual temperatures,” said our tester.
In other words, the Kinsa is just “smart” enough to be useful, but not so smart it can’t function as a basic thermometer, either.
Price at time of publication: $24
- Type: Oral, rectal or underarm
- Power Source: Coin battery
- Dimensions: Not listed
- Weight: 2.4 oz
- Response Time: 8 seconds
- Extra Features: App with member profiles, stored data, and personalized guidance
Why We Like It: Clear instructions and quick readings make this tympanic thermometer easy to use in a pinch.
It’s Worth Noting: There’s a learning curve to holding it in just the right position.
In-ear, or tympanic, thermometers are appealing because they blend ease of use with accuracy, and the Braun Thermoscan Ear Thermometer is no exception. This thermometer was easy for us to set up and use thanks to a handy guide, and it gave readings within a few seconds. We also appreciated the disposable ear covers, since they made cleaning the thermometer after use basically non-existent (no sanitizing the device in the middle of the night).
Our only complaint about this device was that, to get an accurate reading, we really needed to learn how to angle the thermometer correctly within our ear canal. One tester noted, “There is a large margin for error because you have to hold it in the right direction, upwards towards the opposite eye, to get an accurate result.” This could make it hard to consistently get an accurate reading if you’re working with a squirmy child or a fine motor issue of your own.
That said, we liked everything else about this ear thermometer enough to recommend it as the best of its type.
Price at time of publication: $42
- Type: Ear
- Power Source: AA batteries
- Dimensions: 9”L x 5.5”W x 2.5”H
- Weight: 9 oz
- Response Time: Not listed
- Extra Features: Pre-warmed tip, disposable filters
Why We Like It: An ergonomic design and extra features in the display make this combination forehead/ear thermometer a breeze to use.
It’s Worth Noting: You’ll have to keep track of a cap if you’re switching between ear and forehead readings.
While some forehead thermometers require you to sweep or scan your forehead for a reading, the Elepho eTherm Infrared thermometer has a much simpler operation. You just point it at the forehead and wait for your results, which we found in testing to pop up pretty quickly.
We also appreciated that the display was bright and clear, showed us a smiley face when our temp was in normal range, and also showed a picture of a head when set to take a forehead reading and an ear when ready to take a tympanic reading. (Yes, this thermometer can toggle between forehead and ear readings, which was also something we liked!) Set up was easy, results were taken quickly, and it passed our durability drop-test. It’s a little bit on the higher end of pricing, but we think it’s worth it since you’re getting two thermometers in one here.
Price at time of publication: $30
- Type: Forehead and ear
- Power Source: AAA batteries
- Dimensions: 7”L x 2”W x 2”H
- Weight: 5.6 oz
- Response Time: 1 second
- Extra Features: No-touch readings
Why We Like It: Despite its inexpensive price tag, this is a reliable and durable thermometer.
It’s Worth Noting: It has a smaller display and results may slow down with repeated use.
Proving that high-quality things can come in affordable packages, the iProven Adult Digital Oral and Rectal Thermometer surprised us in testing with how easy it was to use in spite of its low-cost price tag. We were able to use it straight after opening the box and get a temperature reading in less than five seconds.
Speaking of readings, we liked that the display included a smiley face, frowny face, and neutral face for the different temperature readings so we could see clearly whether a reading qualified as a fever or not. We also appreciated that, in comparison to other thermometers we tested, the iProven kept the most recent temperature reading on the display for a while, giving us a little extra time to review our results.
The display isn’t the biggest and we did notice that repeated testing slowed down the result time a bit, but considering how affordable and accurate this thermometer is—along with the fact that it comes with a full protective case that stayed put during our drop test—makes this one of the best budget thermometers on the market.
Price at time of publication: $8
- Type: Oral, rectal
- Power Source: Coin battery
- Dimensions: 5”L x .79”W x .5”H
- Weight: 1.5 oz
- Response Time: 10 to 20 seconds
- Extra Features: Low battery alert
Why We Like It: It vibrates instead of beeping when it’s ready, offering a different—and silent!—way of alerting users.
It’s Worth Noting: It can be tricky to use with small infants.
Where most thermometers offer an alerting beep when they’re done taking a reading, the iHealth PT3 vibrates—which may not seem like a big difference, but when you’re trying to sneak into a child’s room to check their temperature while they sleep, being able to do it without waking them up can make or break the rest of your night.
There are other reasons why the vibration alert is helpful for families; one of our testers mentioned that sometimes there is a lot of environmental noise and distractions in a kid-filled household, and a vibration alert is often easier to detect than a beep. In other specs, we liked how quickly the thermometer took readings, how bright and clear the lighted display was, and its overall durability. We do think this one could be a little tricky to use with a very young child, since it can be hard to position it correctly and the readings disappear quickly, but the convenience of the vibration feature makes up for some of the thermometer’s other quirks.
Price at time of publication: $23
- Type: Forehead
- Power Source: AAA batteries
- Dimensions: 5.4”L x 1.5”H x 1.3”W
- Weight: 4.6 oz
- Response Time: 1 second
- Extra Features: Vibration alert
With the supervision of medical professionals, the Health team tested 25 digital thermometers in our Lab to see how easily and accurately they took our body temperatures. We evaluated each device for setup, response time, accuracy, ease of use, data readability, and durability, since these are the factors we determined to be the most important when choosing between digital thermometers for at-home use.
After getting a baseline temperature taken by a medical professional, all of our testers took their own temperatures with each device twice to measure accuracy. We also repeated this testing process for three different phases—sitting, walking, and running—to further observe the consistency and accuracy of the thermometers.
We considered how easy it was to get started using each thermometer right out of the box, as well as how simple the instructions were to follow and how comfortable the thermometer was to use, especially in the mouth and ear. We also noted how long it took for readings to be measured with each thermometer.
For data readability, we evaluated how large and clear the numbers were on the display, whether it was backlit, and whether the thermometer could store our temperature readings for future comparison. Finally, we assessed each thermometer’s durability by dropping it on the floor from a few different heights (starting at the waistline and going down from there) to see if any of the thermometers suffered obvious cosmetic damage or no longer functioned correctly.
First, you should definitely be opting for a digital thermometer, even if it’s a cheap one. According to Marc Helzer, MD, primary care physician with University of Michigan Health-West, mercury thermometers are no longer recommended because they can break and leak mercury, which is toxic. If you still have one of these, he says you should dispose of it in a hazardous waste collection.
Beyond that, the types of thermometers available differ mainly in location, i.e. where you’ll take your temperature readings. There are three main kinds:
- oral, rectal, and armpit thermometers
- forehead thermometers
- in-ear, or tympanic, thermometers
Oral, rectal, and armpit thermometers are the most traditional type; they usually come with interchangeable tips and disposable covers for sanitary use. Forehead thermometers can be either touch or no-touch, but are typically scanned across the forehead or simply held in front of the forehead for a moment, giving a quick reading using an infrared scanner. Tympanic thermometers are usually placed just inside the ear canal and also use infrared technology to determine body temperature.
Generally speaking, a thermometer’s ease of use will come down to how simple it is to unbox the thermometer, skim through the instructions, and receive your temperature results. (A thermometer that’s complicated to operate is going to be annoying to use when you or your family member is sick and cranky!)
But there are ease of use concerns that can vary depending on age; for example, an infant might not be able to hold still for a forehead or ear reading, and older children are likely to resist a rectal one.
“For newborns up to age four, it is best to take their temperature under the armpit or rectum [while] children older than two can also have their temperature taken by ear,” says Dr. Johnston. “It’s also common to take a temperature orally once a child can sit long enough and they are able to hold a thermometer under their tongue, and most adults use oral thermometers.”
Dr. Johnston also flags the issue of cleaning and caring for your thermometer. Thermometers with a probe will require cleaning after use, she explains, while infrared thermometers won’t since they’re not used internally.
It can be hard to tell if your thermometer is giving accurate results unless you’re comparing it to another thermometer, and most of us aren’t spending our sick days conducting thermometer accuracy tests.
That said, if you repeatedly get very different results on the same person while using the same thermometer in the same location, it’s possible something is off with your device. If it’s worked reliably in the past, you may just need to change the batteries. If it’s always been a bit unpredictable, look for a more accurate replacement.
A thermometer that’s accurate but doesn’t clearly display your temperature reading won’t be that useful. You need a device that gives you quick, easy-to-read results.
“When you are looking for a thermometer, you should focus on finding the one that is easiest for you to read and use,” says Srini K. Hejeebu, MD, internal medicine specialist at The University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences, adding that this will probably be some kind of digital thermometer for the majority of people.
Look for devices with large, backlit displays so you can see the reading easily in all types of light. Some thermometer displays will also turn green, yellow, or red when the result is ready, so it’s even easier to know if your temperature is normal, slightly elevated, or high.
Lastly, Dr. Johnston says to make sure the thermometer you purchase is available in Celsius or Fahrenheit, depending on what you use: “Many thermometers have the ability to switch between the two, but you wouldn’t want to end up purchasing a thermometer you aren’t able to read or understand.”
It’s not always a given that a higher-priced thermometer will last longer than a cheaper one; sometimes, all the technology that gives a higher-priced device its costly price tag makes it more prone to failure. But whatever type you choose, you may want to focus on buying one made in the U.S.
“When purchasing a thermometer online or in a store, beware of retailers from outside the United States,” says Dr. Helzer, adding that the FDA offers guidance on purchasing and selling thermometers since they are considered medical devices (and some of those guidelines were modified during the pandemic).
Ultimately, if you’re really not certain, talk to a physician or pharmacist before making your purchase.
You need a basic thermometer that can take an accurate temperature reading, but you may want one that does more than just tell you what your numerical temp is.
For example, people with chronic health conditions may appreciate the ability to store and track results over time in their thermometer or even on a separate app. Meanwhile, parents might want to focus on color-coded backlight displays and quiet result alerts (like vibration versus beeping) for those middle-of-the-night temperature readings on sick kids.
Here’s some good news: you don’t have to spend a lot to get a reliable thermometer.
“You can easily get a very good thermometer for less than $20,” says Dr. Hejeebu. “It’s really not necessary to get a high-priced unit.”
Dr. Helzer agrees, adding that not only are digital contact thermometers available for a budget-friendly cost, they also come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are readily available at most grocery stores and pharmacies, making them easy to grab when needed.
It’s pretty hard, actually, unless you’re willing to do some experimentation. You can test your thermometer repeatedly on yourself, observing whether your temperature changes significantly each time even when all other parameters (like your location and activity level) don’t change.
You can also compare the results of one type of thermometer against another; for example, taking an oral temperature with one thermometer and a forehead temperature with a different thermometer. Keep in mind, though, that these readings will need to be adjusted for their location, since some types of temperatures (like oral) are typically lower than other types (like rectal and ear).
Technically, mercury thermometers are the most accurate, says Dr. Johnston, but they’re not the safest option. Among different types of digital thermometers, a rectal temperature is typically considered to be the most accurate, especially in young children; beyond that, forehead temperatures are the second most accurate, followed by oral and ear, then armpit.
Most body thermometers will give you a number with one decimal place, such as 98.6. (Some basal body thermometers, often used for tracking fertility, go to two decimal places.)
It depends on age, time of day, and other factors, but in general:
- a temperature between 97 and 99 degrees is considered normal
- a temperature between 99 degrees and 100.3 degrees is considered a low-grade fever
- a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher is considered a fever
However, the type of thermometer you’re using can alter what’s considered a normal reading: an oral reading of 100 degrees or higher may be considered a fever, as is an armpit reading of 99 degrees or higher. It’s important to read the manual that comes with your specific thermometer so you know how it’s calibrated; the manual should specify what’s considered a normal temperature versus a fever based on the device you’re using.
Digital thermometers used for reading body temperatures usually can’t go as high as ones designed for cooking. Most of them will max out at 109 or 110 degrees Fahrenheit.