Easy access to obtaining home medical equipment has become very popular amongst my patients with the presence of Amazon. This can be a really good thing for patients wanting to obtain devices to help monitor and assess their health. One of the most popular monitoring devices that is purchased by people with a lung diagnosis is a pulse oximeter. These personal devices used to run about $150 to $300 a piece about 20 years ago, but now you can obtain one from Amazon, Walmart or your local pharmacy for between $35 and $45. They are small, easy to read, and are fairly accurate in comparison to the commercial units we use in our hospitals daily.
So what does a Pulse Oximeter do? Pulse oximeters are devices that calculate a person’s peripheral oxygen saturation in their blood (SpO2). It can also calculate your heart rate as well. It does this calculation painlessly by inserting your finger tip into the probe and placing it on top of your finger nail.
How does it calculate this number? Plethysmography. In layman’s terms, it sends two wavelengths of light into the finger through the nail bed and measures what is absorbed by the arterial blood. A more exact and specific explanation of this can most likely be found online but for educational purposes on this blog, I’m going to leave it at that! ;)
What can affect the accuracy of a pulse oximeter? The pulse oximeter delivers a calculated value so it is important to remember that when you are using this device that there are a few things that can affect the oximeter from reading accurately. Those variable are (but not limited to): cold finger tips, dark nail polish, movement, low capillary refill, and highly calloused fingertips.
Who should own a pulse oximeter? I recommend that anyone who is currently on oxygen for exertion have a pulse oximeter on hand to monitor their oxygen saturation. If you are exercising on your own while wearing oxygen you should be able to quickly check your oxygen after using each piece of equipment. It is also a good idea to get a baseline oxygen saturation level each day in order to help you notice changes in your condition.
What oxygen saturations are normal? When should I become concerned? Healthy oxygen levels should be maintained between 90-100%. If you are finding that you are consistently dropping below 90% with activity or at rest, you should contact your physician to see if you need to be seen for further evaluation. If you let your oxygen consistently drop below 90% you may be doing damage to your heart and/or other organs.
Some other notes yet IMPORTANT:
When using a pulse oximeter you are going to notice that the numbers will not “stay still” and will change constantly. This is okay and perfectly normal. I see a lot of my patients wearing these pulse oximeters as “jewelry.” When I see this I tend to worry that the patient is looking at this number TOO MUCH. Do not let yourself be consumed with reading your oxygen levels constantly. Remember to SELF ASSESS. You have the ability to listen to your body and if you feel good and are breathing comfortably there is no need to take frequent readings of your oxygen level (unless you have been asked by your physician to do so).
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