Ever heard of an oximeter? If you have a lung or heart condition, you may use one periodically at home to monitor your condition.
Regardless of your past familiarity with them, you may have noticed lately that pulse oximeters are popping up in the news and your social feeds. We've put together some FAQs regarding oximeters and their usage in regard to COVID-19.
Q: What is a pulse oximeter and what does it measure?
A pulse oximeter is a quick, painless and reliable way for clinicians to measure a person's blood oxygen levels.
When breathing, oxygen enters your lungs, passes through thin membranes and enters your blood stream; it's then picked up by red blood cells and carried around the body to various organs.
A pulse oximeter is a tiny device that slides over your fingertip uses infrared light refraction to measure how well oxygen is binding to your red blood cells. Heartcare oximeters report blood oxygen levels via an oxygen saturation measurement called peripheral capillary oxygen saturation, or SpO2.
Q: Can a pulse oximeter be helpful in catching COVID-19 early?
The new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 enters the body through the respiratory system, causing direct injury to the lungs via inflammation and pneumonia — both of which can negatively impact how well oxygen is transferred into the bloodstream. This oxygen impairment can occur at multiple stages of COVID-19, and not simply for critically ill patients placed on ventilators.
There's a phenomenon observed clinically where a person with COVID-19 can have very low oxygen levels but otherwise appear well, termed "happy hypoxia." It's concerning because these patients may be more significantly ill than they feel, warranting further medical attention and in some cases treatment.
This is why people have questioned whether an Oximeter can help detect COVID-19 in it's early stages. However, not everyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will develop low oxygen levels. There are people who may have a very uncomfortable bout with fever, GI upset and muscle aches, but may never demonstrate low oxygen levels.
Ultimately, an oximeter can be an indicator or can be useful to those who have COVID-19 and are isolating. if you are concerned regarding exposure, we would still recommend further testing.
Q: So, can a pulse oximeter be a helpful tool for monitoring COVID-19 at home?
If a person has a mild case of COVID-19 and is self-treating at home, an oximeter can be a helpful tool for checking oxygen levels. In general, the people who are theoretically more at risk for oxygen issues are those with pre-existing lung disease, heart disease and/or obesity, as well as active smokers.
In addition, since "happy hypoxia" can be present in people who might otherwise be regarded as asymptomatic, a pulse oximeter can help ensure that this clinically silent early warning sign is not missed.
If you have tested positive for COVID-19 and are concerned about any developing symptoms, check immediately with your health care provider.
Q: For a person with COVID-19, when do oximeter measurements become concerning?
As a good rule of thumb, a person with COVID-19 monitoring his or her clinical status at home will want to ensure that the SpO2 reading stays consistently at or above 90 to 92%. If the number consistently drops below this threshold, timely medical evaluation is warranted.
Q: What might make pulse oximeter readings less accurate?
Pulse oximeters can have falsely low readings if a person has circulatory issues with poor blood flow to the extremities, such as very cold hands, intrinsic vascular disease or Raynaud's phenomenon. In addition, fake nails or certain darkly colored nail polish, such as black or blue, can distort the readings. It is recommended that people measure at least one finger per hand to confirm the numbers.
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