Doctors often use ear (also called tympanic) thermometers because your eardrum shares blood supply with your hypothalamus -- the body's temperature control center -- and so reflects changes in core temperature quite quickly. They do come with a bit of a learning curve, though, because the thermometer must be inserted at just the right angle for an accurate reading.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends imagining that you're aiming the probe through the child's ear at the eye on the opposite side of their head. Another common mistake is not inserting the thermometer far enough, so it measures the temperature at the side of the ear canal (wrong target) instead of the eardrum (correct target).
Once you've nailed the technique, ear thermometers can return quick, easy readings with a minimum of fuss, especially if they have a soft, "pre-warmed" tip like our top pick, the Braun Thermoscan 5 IRT6020 (Est. $40) ear thermometer.
The soft, warm tip on the Thermoscan 5 eliminates both the discomfort and the inaccurate readings that can sometimes result from using an ear thermometer with a cool tip, and it's short enough that parents say they don't worry about hurting their child's eardrum. A light-and-beep system helps you guide the thermometer into the proper position. It won't take a reading until you get it positioned correctly -- a process that sometimes frustrates users, but ultimately saves them from inaccurate readings.
Users love that results only take a couple of seconds to pop up on the screen and they're very complimentary about the Braun Thermoscan 5's accuracy. They also appreciate that this ear thermometer uses easy-to-find AA batteries, and many say it works just as well for cranky or fidgety adults as for kids. The one feature users sometimes miss is a light-up display that would make it easier to see the temperature in the dark. If that's important to you, an upgraded version, the Braun Thermoscan 7 IRT6520 (Est. $65), costs more but has color-coded background lights that illuminate green, yellow or red to signal normal, elevated or fever temperatures.
Feedback on the Braun Thermoscan 5's consistency and durability is almost universally positive. However, don't forget to factor in the cost of Disposable Lens Filters (Est. $10 per 40), both for hygiene considerations and because the Thermoscan 5 won't operate without them.
For another excellent ear thermometer that relies on an easy-to-clean surface instead of probe covers or filters, consider the Kinsa Smart Ear Thermometer (Est. $50). It doesn't draw as many reviews as the Thermoscan 5, but those who have tried it say the Kinsa returns accurate readings in just a few seconds. One-button operation and an illuminated display that changes color, much like the Braun Thermoscan's, make it easy for sleep-deprived parents to feel confident in their readings.
Many parents also love the Kinsa Smart Ear Thermometer for its "neato" factor; the free companion app gives it the same capability as the Kinsa Smart Stick Thermometer (Est. $20), letting you track temperatures, symptoms and medications, and even add photos to your records. However, unlike the Smart Stick Thermometer, which must be connected to a smartphone to work, you have the option of using the Smart Ear Thermometer on its own. That's a big deal because the app's hit-or-miss Bluetooth pairing is the biggest user complaint we see for both Kinsa thermometers.
Finally, it's worth noting that you'll find some ear thermometers for sale on Amazon.com that aren't name brands, but do have relatively high review ratings. Many of those positive reviews are given exchange for a free product, and often the product names are just long, drawn-out explanations of the item's purpose -- not exactly confidence inspiring. We recommend sticking with name brands to make sure you know exactly what you're getting.