Are Thermometer Probe Covers Sanitary?

Tips for the sanitary use of thermometer probe covers and preventing the accidental spread of germs and illness.

A thermometer is an essential tool for any medicine cabinet. Without proper precautions, however, a thermometer could easily spread illness even while being used to detect it. Using thermometer probe covers helps reduce contamination and keeps everyone healthier.

The most common type of thermometer probe cover is the small, plastic shield medical practitioners use with digital ear thermometers. These covers fit like a small cup over the tip of the thermometer so the probe is not in contact with the patient's ear at any time. The heat registers through the probe cover, which is immediately discarded to prevent the spread of any germs. Because it is used only once on a single patient, germs are not transferred to the next patient needing a temperature reading. These types of probe covers can be purchased in small packages at pharmacies or in larger quantities at nursing and medical supply stores. Relatively inexpensive, they are well worth the cost since they prevent the spread of illness between patients or family members.

Other types of thermometers, including oral and rectal models, also have probe covers. These fit like a sleeve, loosely sliding over the thermometer probe. Like ear thermometer covers, they should be used only a single time and then discarded. Thermometer probe covers are available in model-specific brands or generic designs. For the best sanitation and most protection, use the probe cover designed for each specific thermometer. This ensures the most accurate reading, since the cover fits more securely and evenly around the probe. Probe covers for ear thermometers should never be used with oral or rectal thermometers, since the shape and length of the probes differ greatly and an accurate reading would be impossible.

If thermometer probe covers aren't handled carefully, they lose their protective qualities. Extra covers should be stored in a clean, safe location and should not be handled before use. When fitting a cover over the probe, try not to touch the outside of the cover, the part that will be in contact with the patient. After use, the cover should be immediately discarded, preferably without excessive handling, and the thermometer should be washed with cool, soapy water and then rinsed to guarantee decontamination. When taking a temperature reading, be sure to wash your hands carefully before and after to insure that no germs are accidentally spread, even if a probe cover is used.

If multiple readings are being taken, separate covers should be used each time, even for the same patient. Wax, saliva, or other bodily fluids can easily accumulate on the cover and distort readings.

Some thermometers, particularly glass models or those with flexible tips, are equipped with a protective sheath. This is not the same as a probe cover and should be used only for storage, never for taking a reading. To prevent contamination, the sheath should be washed and rinsed periodically, especially when a fever has been detected.

With proper care, use, and disposal, thermometer probe covers are quite sanitary. Using covers each time a temperature reading is taken lessens the spread of illness between patients or family members. When fewer people are ill, the thermometer will be needed less and less.

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