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How to use a Pulse Oximeter Correctly | Helpful Tips for Accuracy

July 10, 2022 - by Parul Saini, Webmedy team


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With the growing popularity and usefulness of Pulse Oximeters, people are now using a pulse oximeter at home to monitor their blood oxygen levels.

In this article, we will give you helpful tips on how to use a Pulse Oximeter at home correctly to get accurate results.

What is a Pulse Oximeter?

A pulse oximeter is a small, clip-like medical device. It attaches to a body part, most commonly to a finger. A pulse oximeter uses a non-invasive method for monitoring a person's blood oxygen saturation (as opposed to measuring oxygen saturation directly through a blood sample). It can rapidly detect even small changes in oxygen levels. To know how a Pulse Oximeter works read this related blog article - What is a Pulse Oximeter?

Factors Affecting Pulse Oximeter Accuracy

First, let's go over the factors that can affect the accuracy of a Pulse Oximeter reading.

  • Incorrect Positioning of the Finger

    The finger should fit comfortably. It should not be too tight as it may restrict blood circulation. On the other hand, it should not be too loose for the device to fall off or allow outside light to interfere with the reading.

  • Nail polish on fingernails or Long dirty fingernails

    Nail polish or dirty fingernails can absorb light emitted by the pulse oximeter and affect the accuracy of the reading.

  • Movement of hand while taking the reading

    Movement of hand or shivering can result in an inaccurate reading.

  • Cold hands and Poor Blood Circulation

    Cold hands and fingers mean that the blood flow and circulation to your hand is low and may cause difficulty for the oximeter to detect a good pulse signal.

  • Current Tobacco Use

    A person who smokes heavily might cause their oxygen saturation to be measured at 8% higher.

  • Skin Thickness and Skin Pigmentation

    It has been found that dark skin or high pigmentation skin can result in overestimation of oxygen saturation, especially at low saturation levels.

  • Using under a Direct Bright Light Source

    Direct bright light in the room or bright sunlight can interfere and result in an inaccurate reading

Tips for taking Accurate Pulse Oximeter Readings at Home

  • Always follow instructions from the device manufacturer on how to take a reading.
  • Avoid taking the reading under a direct bright light source.
  • Take the reading preferably sitting.
  • Make sure your hand is relaxed, warm, and below heart level.
  • The hand should be steady and in a resting position.
  • Preferably use your right hand's middle finger. Remove any fingernail polish on the finger you're reading.
  • Insert your finger into the device and press the button to start taking the reading. Wait at least 30 to 60 seconds until the reading stops changing and displays one steady number.

What are the two readings on a Pulse Oximeter?

  • Blood Oxygen Saturation (SpO2): The measurement that indicates what percentage of blood is saturated.
  • Pulse Rate: Pulse rate is nothing but the heart rate that indicates the number of times a heart beats per minute.

Interpreting the Pulse Oximeter Reading

  • A pulse oximeter reading is an estimate of blood oxygen saturation. For example, a pulse oximeter Oxyhemoglobin saturation (SpO2) of 90% may represent an arterial oxygen saturation (SaO2) of 86-94%.
  • Normal oxygen levels are at least 95%. Some patients with chronic lung disease or sleep apnea can have normal levels of around 90%.
  • If your SpO2 level is less than 95%, you need to visit a doctor, as it may be an indication that you may be suffering from hypoxia, a condition that requires observation and treatment.
  • When possible, make diagnosis and treatment decisions based on trends in pulse oximeter readings over time, rather than absolute thresholds.

Pay Attention to other Signs or Symptoms of Low Oxygen Levels

Do not rely only on a pulse oximeter reading to assess your health condition or oxygen level. If you are monitoring your oxygen levels at home, also pay attention to other signs or symptoms of low oxygen levels, such as:

  • Difficulty in breathing.
  • Bluish color in nails, face, or lips.
  • Fast or racing pulse rate.
  • Tightness or pain in the chest.
  • A cough that gets worse over time.
  • A general feeling of discomfort and restlessness.

We hope, these tips will make you confident in using and getting accurate readings with a pulse oximeter at home.

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