If you have a lung or heart condition, you may regularly use a small gadget at home to monitor your condition, known as a pulse oximeter. Regardless of your familiarity with them, you may have recently noticed that pulse oximeters are popping up in the news and various sources online – all because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unfortunately, one of the mysteries of COVID-19 is that oxygen levels in the blood can drop dangerously low without the patient noticing, also known as “silent hypoxia”, which can be present in people who might otherwise be regarded as asymptomatic. However, a pulse oximeter can act as a potentially life-saving solution, allowing those suffering from COVID-19 to monitor their oxygen levels whilst at home, and costs under £30.
Although studies of reliability show mixed results, many doctors are advising patients to get one, with pulse oximeters now being rolled out for high-risk COVID patients in the UK. Within this article, we have answered common questions about the small go-to gadget, how it works and if it can help to detect COVID-19 at home.
What is a pulse oximeter?
A pulse oximeter is a small device that provides an accurate way to measure your blood oxygen levels, by shining a light into your finger. It’s a simple, painless test which is usually placed over your fingertip or earlobe and uses infrared light refraction to measure how well oxygen is binding to your red blood cells.
A pulse oximeter is a conventional medical device often used by people with respiratory problems, or individuals who need to monitor their blood oxygen levels, such as athletes. It is typically used for testing and monitoring patients in clinical environments, such as at the GP surgery, however, it is common for people mentioned in the above groups to utilise the pulse oximeter for home monitoring.
The oximeter display will show the percentage of oxygen in your blood. According to the British Lung Foundation, the normal blood oxygen saturation level for someone who’s healthy will be around 95-100%. If the oxygen level is below this percentage, it can be an indicator that there is a lung problem. If the number falls below this, you should check in with your health care professional.
Can a pulse oximeter be a helpful tool for monitoring COVID-19 at home?
If you have tested positive for COVID-19 and are self-treating at home, a pulse oximeter can be a helpful tool for monitoring your oxygen levels so that you can detect low oxygen levels early.
According to BBC News, pulse oximeters are being given to people in the UK with COVID who are over the age of 65, younger but have a health problem, or anyone doctors are concerned about. If the oxygen levels of these people drop to 93-94%, then they are being encouraged to speak to their GP or call 111. Furthermore, if these levels drop below 92%, then these people are advised to go to A&E or call 999 for an ambulance. It’s important to note that there is not one universal SpO2 number indicating that a person’s oxygen levels are healthy. Therefore, it’s essential to check with your health care professional if you are concerned.
Can a pulse oximeter diagnose COVID-19?
It seems there has been some confusion over whether a pulse oximeter can diagnose COVID-19 at home. However, the answer is no. A pulse oximeter may signal issues with blood oxygen levels, which could possibly later be related to coronavirus, but it is not a substitute for a clinical assessment.
If you have symptoms or have been in close contact with someone who is COVID-19 positive, it’s extremely important to get a test. Although a pulse oximeter may be a helpful tool for you to monitor your health, it shouldn’t be used to diagnose COVID-19.
Can a pulse oximeter save lives?
Dr Inada-Kim, a consultant in acute medicine at Hampshire Hospitals and the national clinical lead of the Covid Oximetry at Home project, told BBC News that “The point of this whole strategy is to try to get in early to prevent people getting that sick, by admitting patients at a more salvageable point in their illness.” He said that there isn’t definitive proof that the pulse oximeter saves lives and it could take up until the Spring to know for sure if it’s making a difference. However, the early signs are positive and may help to reduce the pressures put on the emergency services.
He also told BBC News, that he is so confident of the oximeters role in tackling silent hypoxia that he thinks everyone should consider purchasing one. “Personally I would, and I know a number of colleagues who have bought pulse oximeters to distribute to their loved ones,” stated Dr Inada-Kim.