What’s a pulse oximeter and do you need one to monitor for coronavirus?

Published: 05 June, 2020

From The Philadelphia Inquirer
By Sarah Gantz

The pulse oximeter is a device to monitor your heart rate and blood oxygen level. The devices are commonly used in hospitals to track patients’ vital signs, and doctors are finding them useful for identifying troubling developments among COVID-19 patients.

What is a pulse oximeter and what does it do?

A pulse oximeter is a small device that clips onto a fingertip and measures heart rate and blood oxygen levels, both of which are tracked on a small screen. The device emits a small beam of light, and the amount of reflection or absorption of that light indicates how much oxygen is in the blood. Heart rate and blood oxygen levels are good indicators of a patient’s stability.

COVID-19 is associated with pneumonia-like symptoms, and many patients who develop severe cases of the virus experience such difficulty breathing that they must be put on a ventilator. Reports of blood oxygen levels dropping before patients realize they are in severe respiratory distress suggest that such declines could be a sign that a mild case of COVID-19 is worsening. Monitoring levels may allow for earlier intervention.

Who would benefit from having one at home?

People who test positive but have mild symptoms will likely be sent home with instructions to isolate from others, monitor their symptoms and call their doctor if their condition worsens. Using a pulse oximeter could help with that monitoring.

Doctors agree that there is no reason for a healthy individual to routinely measure blood oxygen levels, as a decline is unlikely to be the first symptom of illness.

I’m not sick. Should I get a pulse oximeter?

Doctors have varying opinions about whether a pulse oximeter should join a thermometer in your medicine cabinet.  It could be useful, but don’t replace common sense with a pulse oximeter reading.

Doctors say people with underlying heart or lung conditions that make them more vulnerable to developing severe cases of COVID-19 may use the device to track their blood oxygen levels if they start to feel sick.

One doctor thinks there’s no harm in anyone having one, so long as they understand that the devices can give false readings and should be interpreted in the context of other health indicators. The more information you’re able to give your doctor when you’re feeling sick, the better, and a pulse oximeter reading could be one more detail to help your doctor evaluate your situation, he said.

“If you feel as though you’re having respiratory distress and want to give a physician an informed picture of what they’re dealing with, it’s not a bad thing to have,” he said.

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