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A friend of a friend who works at the CDC recently told me that she recommends having a finger pulse oximeter for home and travel, to help monitor changes in your respiratory condition. Ever since we went into quarantine in March, we have made sure that we’ve got all the health tools we need for ourselves and the kids, like medications and hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and a working thermometer. (I got one of those no-contact infrared thermometers because the kids act like you’re trying to draw blood when you take their temperature!) So, when I learned that having a finger pulse oximeter at home or on the road could be useful, I wondered if we really needed one?

According to this New York Times opinion piece by an emergency room doctor, “Widespread pulse oximetry screening for Covid pneumonia — whether people check themselves on home devices or go to clinics or doctors’ offices — could provide an early warning system for the kinds of breathing problems associated with Covid pneumonia.”

To get more information, I checked in with Dr. Nina Shapiro, author of HYPE: A Doctor’s Guide to Medical Myths and Professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

RELATED: Finger Pulse Oximeters on Amazon

JOHNNYJET.COM: In layman’s terms, what is a finger pulse oximeter? What does it measure?
NINA SHAPIRO: A pulse oximeter is an instrument that measures the percentage of oxygen circulating through the bloodstream, specifically through the arteries.  This is measured via the skin and is placed at a ‘pulse point,’ commonly the tip of a finger. The pulse oximeter has a sensor that picks up each pulse, or heartbeat, and the percent of oxygen in the blood, which should be in the 95-100% range.

RELATED: Would Doctors Travel During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

JOHNNYJET.COM: Is it useful for people to have one at home or when they travel?
NINA SHAPIRO: Having a pulse oximeter can be useful for home and travel, but it’s really important to try it out before you’d really need it.  Some of them are more accurate than others, and some may be hard to use. Try it out on a few digits, and on a few different people in your home to test its accuracy and usability. The main function of oximeters these days is to detect significant changes in pulse oximetry measurements. For instance, if you normally run at 100% and it reads 98%, there is little concern for a significant change. But if you run at 98% and it drops to 90%, that could be a sign for concern. When it comes to travel, take altitude change into account. Most people’s oxygen levels drop at high altitude, so if you’re headed to the mountains, your oximeter may hover in the 95% range, not 100%.

JOHNNYJET.COM: Can a pulse oximeter detect COVID-19 or provide any COVID-19 indications?
NINA SHAPIRO: An oximeter most definitely CANNOT detect COVID-19. But, if you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and are having respiratory symptoms such as cough, congestion, or shortness of breath, an oximeter may help you detect a change in your respiratory condition. A drop to the low 90s or below should signal you to seek medical care asap.

In conclusion, Dr. Shapiro says that as with all tools related to COVID-19, pulse oximetry is just one other tool in our tool box. “Just as temperature checks are merely monitoring tools, pulse oximetry is one other way to assess one’s health at a given time,” she says. “Also keep in mind that those individuals with chronic conditions such as heart or lung disease may have a very stable, albeit lower, baseline oxygen level.” I bought this finger pulse oximeter to add to my home and travel health kit. Here are more for you to consider.

Natalie DiScala
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1 Comment On "A Tool I'd Never Heard of But Have Added to My Travel Health Kit"
  1. art|

    Good suggestion. Through this covid experience we’ve all been upgrading our personal health equipment. Out with the old, in with the new (infrared, etc). Early on I tried shopping Amazon for an infrared thermometer and oximeter but all the reputable brands were sold out and the only available inventory were questionable brands shipping from China. Then I found everything I was shopping for at the Costco pharmacy at less cost. Costco deals with qualified vendors and has great customer support and return policies. I picked up an infrared thermometer and an oximeter at Costco easy peasy.

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