The No-Panic Guide to Fevers

Before You... Take Your Child's Temp

Ditch your glass thermometer. Those old-school thermometers contain mercury, a potent toxin that affects the brain, spinal cord, liver, and kidneys, and can cause learning disabilities. If it breaks, you risk exposing your family to mercury's harmful vapors. Still have one lurking in your medicine cabinet? Don't just toss it into the trash. Take it to your pediatrician (she can dispose of it safely), or drop it off at your local hazardous-waste collection site.

Pick the right method. For babies, you'll get the most precise reading using a digital rectal thermometer; you can switch to an oral one when your child turns 3. An ear thermometer, although it's fast and convenient, can actually be deceptively tricky to use: You have to place it correctly in the ear canal for an accurate result. (Too much earwax can throw off the reading as well.) Underarm and pacifier varieties are also less reliable than the gold-standard rectal and oral thermometers.

Perfect your technique. To take a rectal temp, first dab petroleum jelly on the bulb of the thermometer. Place your baby belly-down on your lap or on a bed or changing table, then gently insert the bulb 1/2 to 1 inch into your child's rectum. Loosely hold the thermometer in place with two fingers until it beeps. To get an accurate reading using an oral thermometer, wait at least 15 minutes after your child has had anything hot or cold to eat or drink before you take his temperature.

When is a Fever Serious?

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