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How to Sanitize a Thermometer

by David B. Ryan

A thermometer used to take the temperature of an ill person can spread disease to the rest of the family and reinfect a child recovering from an illness. The devices measure temperature different ways, but all of thermometer models need regular disinfecting to remove germs. Old-school cleaning processes used steam and chemicals, but you can disinfect modern thermometers with a few simple items found around the house. It takes only a few minutes to do, and developing a routine of disinfecting after each use allows you to know your thermometer is ready for use.

Thermometer Use

The type of cleaning your thermometer needs depends on the way you use the device. If you have both an oral and rectal thermometer in the home, label the case of each to avoid contamination with improper use. Demonstrate the proper way to clean and store the thermometer for older family members and adult caregivers.

Disinfecting vs. Cleaning

Cleaning, disinfecting and sterilizing are not all the same, according to the International Federation of Infection Control. Cleaning removes foreign materials, and disinfection reduces the amount of harmful organisms on the thermometer within a range that isn't harmful to your family. Sterilization is the ultimate cleaning method that uses a controlled process to destroy all microorganisms on your thermometer. Your family thermometer needs disinfecting, but it doesn't typically require sterilization. To disinfect, wash the thermometer in cold water and a mild soap, dry and then wipe thoroughly with a fresh tissue soaked in rubbing alcohol.

Sanitary Sleeves

Sanitary sleeves made from a paper product or plastic help protect the thermometer, but the device still needs disinfecting each time you use the thermometer. Your hands and clothing have the potential to contaminate the thermometer when you slip on the sleeve. Protective covers sometimes have storage containers to dispense individual sleeves, but unless you keep the container closed tightly at all times, the covers can also become contaminated by germs.

Clean Everything

Some thermometers give readings when placed on the forehead, others when placed under the arm. Even though it may not seem that these thermometers have the same risk of contamination compared with oral or rectal readers, it's important to also clean these devices after each use. Follow the manufacturer's instructions enclosed with your thermometer. If the written care instructions are missing, use the same alcohol-wipe procedure for disinfecting. Don't attempt to clean and reuse disposal fever strips.

Mercury Care

Mercury thermometers have special issues for use and proper cleaning. The delicate glass has a high risk for breaking, and the Environmental Protection Agency recommends discarding these devices at recycling centers certified to accept mercury waste. Never put a broken mercury thermometer in the trash, and keep your children away from the contaminated area. Exposure to mercury risks developmental damage for young children and poisoning for both adults and kids.

About the Author

David B. Ryan has been a professional writer since 1989. His work includes various books, articles for "The Plain Dealer" in Cleveland and essays for Oxford University Press. Ryan holds degrees from the University of Cincinnati and Indiana University and certifications in emergency management and health disaster response.

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