Body temperature

Why does the patient’s/client’s body temperature need to be checked?

There’s a very complex set of processes within our bodies that works constantly to keep our body temperature within the normal range (usually considered to be 36.8ºC, although it can vary normally by a degree either side of this). That’s why when we’re too hot, we flush (the flushing is caused by the tiny blood vessels near the surface of skin expanding to let heat off) and sweat (the sweat evaporates on our skin and causes cooling), and why we shiver when we’re cold (shivering is caused by the muscles under our skin tightening and loosening very rapidly, which generates heat). The body needs to be kept in the normal temperature range so that all the other processes it goes through can take place effectively. Being too hot or too cold affects the body’s ability to work properly. And, of course, as anyone who has had a fever will tell you, a raised body temperature is one of the main signs of infection.

When should I check it?

It’s always sensible to check your patient’s/client’s temperature at your first meeting as a basis from which to assess future changes. Thereafter, you would check it if you suspected there was something wrong – the patient/client complains of feeling unwell, or looks flushed, or begins to shiver or complain of feeling cold. There will also be times when the temperature is checked routinely on a 12-hourly or four-hourly (or sometimes even more frequent) basis when, for instance, the patient/client has started a new drug that affects his or her ability to fight off infection – the times to check the temperature will be set out in the patient’s/client’s care plan.

How do I check it?

  • mercury thermometer (these are used very rarely now in formal health care settings like hospitals and GP surgeries, but you might still find them being used by patients/clients in their own homes, so you should know how a temperature should be taken with a mercury thermometer so you can supervise and advise the patient/client)
  • tympanic thermometer
  • electric thermometer.

What do my findings mean?

A rise in body temperature from the normal range might indicate an infection. We call this a pyrexia. A reduction in body temperature could indicate the onset of hypothermia (which is when the temperature drops below 35ºC), which can be very serious indeed, particularly in older people.

Where should I record and report my findings?

The patient/client will have a chart on which observations can be recorded. You should make sure you record your findings clearly and accurately so that they can be readily seen and understood. If you find the temperature is outside the normal range, you must report it to the registered person in charge. Always follow your organisation’s policies and procedures on recording and reporting.