Do You Need a Pulse Oximeter?

Published on: 28/05/2021

What is a pulse oximeter? And for your peace of mind, should you buy one for your use at home?

As we continuously try to protect ourselves from the threats of the pandemic, we are familiarized with more medications, supplements, and even medical tools that could help us in our battle against the coronavirus.

One such device is the pulse oximeter. However, before deciding to go out and purchase our own oximeter, let's first understand what this device can and cannot do for us.

What’s an Oximeter?

Pulse oximeters are instruments that monitor oxygen saturation. These are clip-on devices that may be attached to a finger, wrist, foot, or any other body part where blood flow can be measured.

These instruments operate by shining a light through a section of the skin that is relatively transparent. The light passes through the skin to a detector on the other side. When a pulse oximeter is clipped to a finger, for example, one side of the clip shines the light and the other detects it.

The oxygen saturation is then determined by the amount of light absorbed by the blood. As such, a pulse oximeter does not explicitly calculate oxygen saturation; instead, it estimates it using a complex equation.

What is Oxygen Saturation?

Oxygen saturation is a measurement of how much oxygen reaches our organs. Keep in mind that oxygen is required for the survival of every system and organ in our body. When deprived of oxygen, our cells begin to fail and eventually die. Cell death, in turn, can result in serious symptoms and, in the worst-case scenario, organ failure.

When Is It Useful to Have an Oximeter?

There are many reasons why our oxygen saturation can drop, and these include suffocation, choking, drowning, allergic reactions, and inhaling poisonous chemicals. Infections such as pneumonia, and diseases such as emphysema and lung cancer can also reduce the level of oxygen in our system. 

Therefore, pulse oximeters are beneficial to people who suffer from these conditions. A pulse oximeter, for example, could be recommended by a sleep specialist to help track the oxygen levels of a patient with suspected sleep apnea or excessive snoring. Some physicians also use pulse oximetry to determine the safety of physical exercise in people with cardiovascular or respiratory disorders. In these cases, they may recommend their patient to wear an oximeter while exercising.

Because pulse oximeters are now widely available, parents of young infants have started to use these because of their concern about sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and sleeping accidents. However, no research supports the effectiveness of this claim at this time.

Pulse Oximetry for COVID-19

According to Yale Medicine pulmonologist Dr. Denyse Lutchmansingh, patients who have COVID-19 symptoms (which include fever, cough, and shortness of breath) can benefit from pulse oximetry. It's also believed that with earlier detection, doctors could do more to keep patients off ventilators.

Nonetheless, doctors have different views as to whether people should keep a pulse oximeter in their home medical supply kits. Most believe that you do not need this device if you don't have any underlying respiratory problems. It's best to use it only if your doctor recommends it.

And while pulse oximetry can be a helpful tool in clinical decision-making, it should not be a replacement for a clinical evaluation or a diagnosis. Remember that there can be a false sense of security with at-home monitoring. There may be instances wherein the device could give a faulty reading or be used incorrectly. Therefore, if you or someone in your home has a really low reading, you can test your system on a healthy person to make sure it's working properly and talk to your doctor about it.