Oximeters Are the New Thermometer and Why You Should Have One

It’s fair to say that the novel coronavirus pandemic has changed the way people shop—and also the items they shop for. There has been a shortage of things one might expect: disinfectant wipes, and thermometers. But, there are other more surprising items like yoga mats, yeast, and, more recently, pulse oximeters.

So, what, exactly, is a Pulse Oximeter?

Oximeters are the new thermometers and why you should have one
An electronic device that clips onto your finger to measure heart rate and oxygen saturation

It’s an electronic device that clips onto a patient’s finger to measure heart rate and oxygen saturation in his or her red blood cells—the device is useful in assessing patients with lung disease.

The logic is that shortness of breath, a symptom of the disease, may not be easy, or even possible, for a person to reasonably self-assess. What’s more, doctors report that some COVID-19 patients suddenly develop a condition called “silent hypoxia,” where people look and feel comfortable—and don’t notice any shortness of breath—but their oxygen levels are dangerously low.

It happens to patients both in the hospital and at home, but it is a particular problem in the latter case because the symptom may indicate severe COVID-19-related pneumonia. That’s why some people may want or need to monitor their oxygen saturation levels at home.

There is debate among doctors about whether or not people need a pulse oximeter in their medical supply kits at home. “In normal times, unless a patient has true lung disease, there is no need for them to use pulse oximetry monitoring,” says Denyse Lutchmansingh, MD, a Yale Medicine pulmonologist. But these aren’t normal times.

Oximeters are the new thermometers and why you should have one
Knowledge of the virus is rapidly changing, which means advice can shift

August de Richelieu from PexelsYou or family members could be at risk if you have a pre-existing condition or are over the age of 65. You should be checking your oxygen levels periodically.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, an emergency physician from New Hampshire said if resources were directed toward earlier detection of silent hypoxia, doctors could do more to keep those patients off ventilators.

There are additional factors to consider, says Dr. Lutchmansingh. One is that knowledge of the virus is rapidly changing, which means advice can shift, as it did when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed its face mask recommendation in April to one that urges people to start wearing cloth masks in public. “We’re working very fast with limited pre-existing data. We are extrapolating a lot based on prior coronavirus infections, like severe acute respiratory syndrome [SARS] and Middle East respiratory syndrome [MERS],” she says.

At this point, Dr. Lutchmansingh says the benefits of pulse oximetry monitoring are most clear among patients who have COVID-19 symptoms such as cough, fever, and shortness of breath. “If you are symptomatic that is a reasonable time to check your oxygen.”