How a Pulse Oximeter Can Help You Keep Track of Your Health

How a Pulse Oximeter Can Help You Keep Track of Your Health
Image: iStock/microgen
At Lifehacker, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW - prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.

Over the past year, there has been an increased interest in pulse oximeters, and for good reason. These pocket-sized devices are used to test pulse oximetry, measuring your blood oxygen saturation (SpO2) levels and pulse rate.

While medical grade oximeters are quite common in hospitals, these devices have had a surge of popularity due to their use for fitness and general wellness purposes. But what exactly are they and how do they work?

What is a pulse oximeter?

As mentioned before, these devices are used to run a pulse oximetry test that allows you to keep track of your SpO2 levels and pulse rate.

Hospital emergency rooms have been using these devices to monitor oxygen levels of COVID-19 patients and can be used to detect symptoms before they get worse. Outside of the pandemic, a pulse oximeter is a helpful way to help maintain your general wellness by keeping track of your blood oxygen levels.

If you’re someone who already suffers from a respiratory problem, like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a pulse oximeter is a handy way to monitor these conditions.

Some of the signs that you might be suffering from low blood oxygen saturation include an increased heart rate, an increased breathing rate and/or shortness of breath. An oximeter reading can be used to indicate whether you’re suffering from blocked airways, a lung infection or if you have poor blood circulation.

It’s important to note that a commercial pulse oximeter isn’t a foolproof method for diagnosing illness, and you shouldn’t be solely relying on your readings when making big decisions about your health. It’s always important to consult a medical professional.

How does it work?

Pulse Oximeter
Image: iStock/Click_and_Photo

Using a pulse oximeter couldn’t be more simple. While sitting still, you attach the device to your fingertip. It’ll use your circulation to give you a pulse reading. To detect your blood oxygen level, the oximeter will shine a light through your finger, from one side to the other. The amount of light it can detect will determine how oxygenated your blood is.

To make sure you’re getting an accurate reading, the oximeter shouldn’t be so tight that it’s noticeably squeezing your finger and constricting your circulation, or so loose that it doesn’t stay on. You should also make sure your finger is clean and you don’t have any nail polish, as your nail’s colour can affect the reading. Being in direct, bright light can also mess with the oximeter’s reading.

According to the World Health Organisation, a SpO2 reading of 95% and above is considered healthy. While anything less than 90% is a clinical emergency and needs to be addressed urgently.

Where can I get one?

You don’t need to visit a hospital to use pulse oximeter. There’s a good chance that you can pick up a pulse oximeter at your local chemist.

However, these over-the-counter devices may not be as accurate as the ones you’d find in a professional medical setting, and the readings provided by them shouldn’t be used as definitive medical advice.

If not, you can quite easily pick one up elsewhere. A pulse oximeter isn’t too expensive, with the Zacurate Pro Series 500DL selling for $22.09, while the Heart Sure Pulse Oximeter is currently on sale for $64.73, down from the usual retail price of $90.

If you currently own a smart watch, you might already have a pulse oximeter without even realising it. For example, FitBit’s Ionic, Versa and Sense watches can give you estimates for your blood oxygen saturation, as can the Apple Watch Series 6 when using the Blood Oxygen app.

Log in to comment on this story!