What Is A Pulse Oximeter And How Does It Help In COVID-19 Detection?

The demand for pulse oximeters has risen with experts also recommending individuals to acquire the device during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen people across the world stocking up on masks, sanitisers and personal protective equipment, anything that can give them an advantage over the novel coronavirus.

As the disease spreads, the demand for a device called a pulse oximeter has spiked. So much so that tech companies are reportedly working on manufacturing smart watches with oximeters.

What is an oximeter?

A pulse oximeter is a device which measures the level of oxygen in the blood. Given the impact of the novel coronavirus on the respiratory system, a drop is oxygen level in the blood is an early indicator of the lungs being infected.

How does an oximeter help in combating COVID-19?

BOOM contacted eminent pulmonologist Dr Jeenam Shah to understand the pulse oximeter's importance in these times.

"The most important thing to look out for in a COVID-19 patient is the drop in oxygen levels. When the oxygen levels drop really low, the kidneys, heart, brain and all the vital organs start deteriorating because they are not getting the required amount of oxygen," says Dr Shah.

"Normal oxygen levels are above 95%. In COVID patients, the oxygen levels drop significantly and can even drop to 40%. There is a concept known as happy hypoxia. Normally, when oxygen levels drop, the patient feels breathless. However, in the case of COVID-19, the patient might not feel breathless even if the the oxygen levels drop below 90%.," Dr Shah says.

The oximeter then becomes crucial in monitoring the oxygen levels even when an individual does not feel breathless. That allows medical professionals to know sooner that the patient is deteriorating.

How do you use an oximeter?

The device has to be clamped to the fingertip. It then averages out the oxygen level over a period of 6-12 seconds to give out the saturation level.

"The oximeter has to be used when an individual is in a resting state and not while doing physical work. However, if the oxygen levels are dropping, I would suggest the individual to measure the oxygen levels while exercising to know the extent of the drop. However, to check for everyone while exercising is not recommended," says Dr Shah.

"However, we don't look at one single value but rather at the trend. If a person has normal oxygen levels in the beginning and then it starts declining, that is a more important indicator than a single point of contact," he adds.

Should individuals and housing societies buy oximeters? Dr Shah recommends it.

"I would definitely recommend it. I have prescribed it to all of my patients who have tested positive and have been home quarantined. That is the only thing you have to monitor. Because if that drops, then you might require hospital admission.

"Housing societies should buy at least one oximeter because you don't know the situation nowadays. You might not get immediate admission to the hospital if you start showing symptoms. During the buffer time, you need to monitor the patient. Even a non-medico person can use it because it's easy to measure," Dr Shah says.

What needs to be noted is that a pulse oximeter does not detect if an individual has COVID-19. People having pre-existing heart or pulmonary conditions also exhibit a drop in oxygen level. If a drop in oxygen levels is detected, the next step is to seek medical help.

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