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Pulse Oximeters: How Can They Detect COVID-19 and More?



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A pulse oximeter attaches to a finger and uses light to detect the oxygen level in your blood.


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As testing efforts for coronavirus increase and face masks become part of everyday life, a small diagnostic tool that clicks on your finger quickly becomes an indispensable gadget in the fight against COVID-19. It's called a pulse oximeter, and it checks the oxygen level in your blood.

The device was already gaining in popularity when the public heard that many patients admitted to COVID-19 often entered the hospital with abnormally low oxygen levels. After an opinion piece in the New York Times last week recommended pulse oximeters could be used to identify the sickest among COVID-19 patients, sales of the devices skyrocketed. At the time of writing, most were sold out in stores and online.

But questions and controversy have arisen about the home use of pulse oximeters, which painlessly measure heart rate and oxygen levels. It is not entirely clear whether a pulse oximeter can detect a coronavirus infection, or whether its widespread use can counter the spread of COVID-19.

Whether you already own a pulse oximeter or are thinking of buying one, here's what you need to know what they do, how they work, what the results mean, and how accurate they can be.

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Pulse Oximeters: Vital Signs at Your Fingertips

A Pulse Oximeter is a small medical device that measures heart rate and oxygen saturation in the blood. It is usually clipped to your finger, but it can also be attached to your ear, nose, toe, or forehead. Some run on batteries and give real-time results on a small LED screen on the device itself. Others wire through a separate vital sign monitor that captures even more accurate heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure information with other sensors connected to your body.

How Pulse Oximeters Measure Heart Rate and Oxygen

A The Pulse Oximeter measures the oxygen saturation and heart rate of your blood by shining a light through your skin and detecting both the color and movement of your blood cells. Oxygen-rich blood cells are bright red, deoxygenated cells are dark red.

The pulse oximeter compares the number of bright red cells with dark red cells to calculate your oxygen saturation as a percentage. So, for example, a 99% reading means that only 1% of the blood cells in your bloodstream are low in oxygen.

Every time your heart beats, it pushes your blood through your body at a rapid rate (which is why "pulse" is another word for "heartbeat"). A pulse oximeter, which uses light, detects this movement and calculates your heart rate in beats per minute, or BPM.

What is a healthy oxygen level and heart rate?

According to the Mayo Clinic, a normal pulse oximeter oxygen reading is between 95% and 100%, and slightly less than 90% is considered dangerously low or hypoxic. Some doctors have reported COVID-19 patients entering the hospital with an oxygen content of 50% or less.

A normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 BPM, or beats per minute. Usually lower is better, because a slower heart rate is usually an indication of a strong cardiovascular system.

Can a pulse oximeter detect COVID-19?

Not exactly. While many doctors report that patients with COVID-19 show dangerously low oxygen levels in the blood, COVID-19 is not the only disease that can cause such a problem. Chronic lung conditions, such as COPD, asthma, and other non-COVID-19 lung infections can also cause low oxygen levels.

A low oxygen level by itself is not enough to diagnose COVID-19, but your doctor may want to know about it, especially if you notice that the level drops over time. And if you've been diagnosed with COVID-19, your doctor may want you to check your oxygen level to determine if your condition is getting worse or improving.

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Angela Lang / CNET

How accurate are over-the-counter pulse oximeters?

As with all electronic equipment, not all pulse oximeters are equal. A 2016 study of low-cost pulse oximeters concluded that several low-cost consumer-grade devices gave very inaccurate readings.

Some pulse oximeters are FDA approved, which means they must meet FDA standards for accuracy. Note that there is a distinction between "FDA approved" and "FDA approved", with "erased" being the less rigorous of the two. That said, Class II medical devices, such as pulse oximeters, are usually "erased" rather than "approved."

You can search the FDA-approved pulse oximeter list by going to the FDA Premarket Notification website and searching for " pulse oximeter " in the field Device Name with or without a manufacturer name.

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Angela Lang / CNET

How much should I spend on a pulse oximeter?

In the 2016 study that found most inexpensive pulse oximeters to be relatively inaccurate, & # 39; cheap & # 39; defined as less than $ 50. Pulse oximeters approved by the FDA range in price from about $ 50 to $ 60 to well into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

Where can I buy a pulse oximeter?

You can still find pulse oximeters for sale online at Walmart, Amazon, and eBay, but most of the brand's devices that you'll find on several best lists, such as those at DigitalTrends, The Wirecutter, and Consumer Reports, are either completely sold out or in reorder, with shipping estimates weeks or sometimes months away.

This week, the CDC added five more official COVID-19 symptoms for a total of seven, which are described here. However, symptoms, vital signs and statistics aren't the only way to track the pandemic: Social media memes and chatter are also relevant data points. Depression and anxiety may not be symptoms of the disease itself, but as the pandemic continues, you are not alone in feeling gloomy.


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