Let’s get a few things straight about pulse oximetry, which seems to be in the news a lot these days. Because knowing only a little bit about pulse oximetry can be misleading. A pulse oximeter measures the level of oxygen saturation in your red blood cells. This handy tool, which is usually clipped to the end of your finger or earlobe, has gained attention during the COVID-19 pandemic as a potential tool to identify hypoxia (low blood oxygen saturation) which is one troubling sign of severe illness caused by COVID-19. So, should everyone make sure they have a pulse oximeter in their medicine cabinet? Not necessarily.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers pulse oximeters to be prescription medical devices, yet most pulse oximeters that are found on the internet or in drug stores are specifically labeled “not for medical use” and have not been reviewed by the FDA for accuracy. And when we’re talking about the purpose behind purchasing a pulse oximeter during, and specifically for, the pandemic—accuracy matters. Yet we’ve seen an upcropping of opportunistic manufacturers selling pulse oximeters as a medicine cabinet staple.
We saw something similar happen with hand sanitizer when the pandemic first began. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is clear that washing your hands with soapy water is best, they suggest using hand sanitizer as a reliable option when a sink isn’t readily available. As a result, huge amounts of hand sanitizer were sold and nearly every store became out of stock. Seeing the need, many companies began manufacturing and selling hand sanitizer quickly. And it soon became apparent that not all products are created equally, resulting in the FDA coming down hard on poorly made sanitizer solutions. There is now a list of hand sanitizers that consumers are recommended to avoid—either because they are ineffective or even potentially cause harm.
Taking a step back, pulse oximeters have been around for 50 years and they are a valuable tool available to patients and providers when collaboratively tracking oxygenation of the blood while treating some chronic lung and heart diseases. They are typically introduced during a medical setting as one tool to use to report back on overall disease management. During the pandemic, they might even be recommended, under the guidance of your healthcare provider, to self-monitor COVID-19 related symptoms.
So, what’s the best way to monitor symptoms? The CDC has developed a helpful coronavirus symptom checker that covers nine life-threatening symptoms of disease to watch for including chest pain, severe shortness of breath and disorientation. These approaches to assessing how a person feels and acts, and then providing guidance on next steps such as seeking emergency care, calling your healthcare provider or continuing to monitor symptoms help guide individuals through a collaborative treatment process.
And remember, we don’t yet have a vaccine nor a targeted treatment for COVID-19. The best course of action you can take to protect the health of yourself, your family and your community is to prevent the spread of the disease by washing your hands, wearing a mask, social distancing and staying home as much as you are able - especially if you are feeling unwell or were around someone who had COVID-19.
Our takeaway message? A pulse oximeter may be a recommended tool to use under the guidance of your healthcare provider to monitor symptoms, but it should not be relied upon without medical oversight, nor without paying heed to other signs and symptoms of illness.
Disclaimer: The information in this article was medically reviewed and accurate at the time of posting. Because knowledge and understanding of COVID-19 is constantly evolving, data or insights may have changed. The most recent posts are listed on the EACH Breath blog landing page. You may also visit our COVID-19 section for updated disease information and contact our Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA for COVID-19 questions.
Blog last updated: August 29, 2023