How accurate are peripheral thermometers for estimating body temperature in my patient with chills?

Though convenient, oral, tympanic membrane, axillary, and temporal artery thermometers (AKA “peripheral thermometers”) may not be highly accurate in measuring body temperature.

A 2015 systematic review and meta-analysis of the performance of peripheral thermometers involving 75 studies (mostly in adults) found that compared to central thermometers (eg, pulmonary artery, urinary bladder, rectal), peripheral thermometers had a low sensitivity (64%, 95% CI 55%-72%), but much better specificity (96%, 95% CI 93%-97%) for fever (most commonly defined as 37.8° C [100° F] or greater).1

In the same study, for oral electronic thermometers, sensitivity was 74% with a specificity of 86%. For temporal artery thermometers, sensitivities ranged from 26% to 91%, while specificities ranged from 67% to 100%. For tympanic membrane thermometers, sensitivities ranged from 23% to 87%, with a specificity of 57% to 99%.

A 2016 study involving adult emergency department patients reported the sensitivity of peripheral thermometers (vs rectal temperature 38 C [100.4] or higher) as follows: oral (37%), tympanic membrane (68%), and temporal artery (71%). Specificity for fever was >90% for all peripheral thermometers. 2

So, it looks like while we may be pretty comfortable with a diagnosis of “fever” when our patient with chills has a high temperature recorded by a peripheral thermometer, lack of fever alone by these devices should not veer us away from the possibility of systemic infection. When in doubt and if possible, check a rectal temperature.

References

  1. Niven DJ, Gaudet JE, Laupland KB. Accuracy of peripheral thermometers for estimating temperature: A systematic and meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med 2015;163:768-777. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26571241
  2. Bijur PE, Shah PD, Esses D. Temperature measurement in the adult emergency department: oral tympanic membrane and temporal artery temperatures versus rectal temperature. Emerg Med J 2016;33:843-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27334759

 

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How accurate are peripheral thermometers for estimating body temperature in my patient with chills?

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