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Temperature scans are an unreliable way to detect COVID-19, study finds

Having a fever doesn’t always correlate with a positive COVID-19 test

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Photo (c) Luis Alvarez - Getty Images
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many consumers may have experienced having their temperature scanned before boarding an airplane or entering a public space. While a fever is one of the most common symptoms of COVID-19, a new study conducted by researchers at the Physiological Society suggests that temperature scanners may not be the most reliable way to detect the coronavirus. 

The team’s work revealed that temperature scanners can yield inaccurate results for several reasons, and it could be time to reevaluate this process to ensure optimal health and safety for consumers. 

“Using a surface temperature scanner to obtain a single surface temperature, usually the forehead, is an unreliable method to detect the fever associated with COVID-19,” said researcher Michael J. Tipton. “Too many factors make the measurement of a skin temperature a poor surrogate for deep body temperature; skin temperature can change independently of deep body temperature for lots of reasons. Even if such a single measure did reflect deep body temperature reliably, other things, such as exercise, can raise deep body temperature.” 

Flaws in the system

Because of how popular temperature scanners have become since the start of the pandemic, the researchers decided to see how effective they are. They also wanted to determine if there was a better system available that could make this process more accurate. 

Scanning for temperature turned out not to be the best way to detect a fever -- related to COVID-19 or otherwise. The researchers found that the surface of the skin may not feel hot, and it may not give off an abnormal temperature reading; however, the deep body temperature may still be elevated. 

It’s also important to note that skin temperature can be affected by a number of factors, including body fat composition, the air temperature in the room, or alcohol consumption. This becomes problematic for several reasons, especially when admittance onto an airplane or into a public place requires a temperature scan. 

“If scanners are not giving an accurate reading, we run the risk of falsely excluding people from places they may want, or need, to go, and we also risk allowing people with the virus to spread the undetected infection they have,” Tipton said. 

Additionally, running a fever isn’t always an indicator of having COVID-19. Though the majority of patients do experience an elevated temperature, many consumers with positive test results never develop a fever. 

Finding a more accurate temperature reading

To ensure health and safety for all consumers, the researchers recommend switching from a forehead scan to a temperature scan of the eyes and fingertips. They explained that many machines used for temperature scans can be repurposed for these types of tests, and they have the potential to be faster and more accurate than the systems currently in place. 

“We think we can improve the identification of the presence of fever using the same kit but looking at the difference between eye and finger temperature -- it’s not perfect, but it is potentially better and more reliable,” Tipton said. 

“The pandemic has had devastating global effects on all aspects of our lives, and unfortunately, it’s unlikely to be the last pandemic we face. It’s critical we develop a method of gauging if an individual has a fever that’s accurate and fast.”

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