A pulse oximeter is a device that measures the oxygen level in a person’s blood. Some people use a pulse oximeter to keep track of general health, while others may use it to monitor symptoms of COVID-19 or other conditions. Pulse oximeters can be used at home and are easy to operate, although it’s a good idea to share readings with your healthcare provider. Over-the-counter pulse oximeters can be purchased in stores and online at Walgreens.
How to use a pulse oximeter
If you are using an over-the-counter (OTC) pulse oximeter, you will likely attach a clip-on probe to your fingertip or earlobe. The device uses light beams to determine how much oxygen is in the blood. The reading on the screen will typically offer two or three numbers, with the most important being the oxygen saturation level, which is an estimate of how much oxygen is in your blood.
How to read a pulse oximeter
Over-the-counter (OTC) pulse oximeters usually display two or three numbers on the screen after a reading. These numbers include oxygen saturation level (SpO2), pulse rate (PR), and sometimes a third number representing the strength of the signal. The SpO2 will be shown as a percentage. Most healthy people will have an oxygen saturation level between 95% and 100%. It may be lower in people with lung problems or those living at high altitudes. Consult with your healthcare provider immediately if your reading is below 95%.
Over-the-counter pulse oximeters are different from prescription pulse oximeters, as they do not undergo FDA review. The SpO2 number is always an estimate, and OTC pulse oximeters may not always show an accurate reading. Poor circulation, darker skin color, thick skin, skin temperature, and dark nail polish can all increase the risk of an inaccurate reading.
OTC pulse oximeters should never be used in place of going to your healthcare provider for advice and treatment. Always speak with your healthcare provider before using a pulse oximeter, and see your provider if you are experiencing shortness of breath or other serious symptoms.