The Rise of the Pulse Oximeter, Myths and Facts You Should Know

pulse oximeter

Rise of Oximeter

Everyone knows the thermometer as the commonly used at-home medical device. However, many people are now also using pulse oximeters at home to detect early signs of illness or breathing problems before reaching a crisis level. Here is everything you need to know about the rise of the pulse oximeter.

Is the Pulse Oximeter the New Thermometer?

Pulse Oximeter and Thermometer

Ever since the pulse oximeter was commercialized in 1980, its role in healthcare has rapidly grown. In fact, by 1987, it became a part of standard procedure in the hospital and was used to measure people’s oxygen levels in the high-care units such as the emergency room, ICU, and neonatal units.

As a non-invasive measure of health, it became a simple, pain-free alternative to blood tests, which can also check for oxygen levels. The pulse oximeter became a commonplace medical device that detects low oxygen levels before reaching severe symptoms such as having a blue face.

Now, pulse oximeters can be found in every hospital and doctor’s office and are even used at home like a thermometer. Checking oxygen levels through a pulse oximeter has become so popular that it is now considered the 5th vital sign along with body temperature, pulse rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure.

How does a Pulse Oximeter work?

Pulse Oximeter

A pulse oximeter works by attaching a clip onto the patient’s fingertips, and it shines a light through your finger to measure the color of your blood. When the blood is brighter, it has more oxygen than blood that is bluer.

As the oximeter interprets the color, it will assign the percentage of oxygen in the blood. Healthy people generally have an oxygenation rate of 95% and above.

The pulse oximeter also measures oxygen through the perfusion index or PI. This measures how strong a pulse is at the sensor site.

The values range from 0.02% for weaker pulses to 20% for stronger pulses. If the pulse is too weak, it can be a sign that the oxygen reading is not accurate.

Common Questions Concerning Your Pulse Oximeter

Pulse Oximeter Questions

Does my doctor accept the pulse oximeter as a medical device?

Yes, the pulse oximeter is widely accepted as a medical device. Not only is it used in medical offices, but some physicians recommend you check your oxygen levels at home. This can help ensure you do not have any underlying conditions or illnesses and give you peace of mind.

Can I accurately measure our own blood oxygen level?

At home, pulse oximeters are very accurate, and you can easily use them yourself. Simply attach the clip to your finger and check the readings. You should have over 95% oxygen in your blood.

Does my doctor use a pulse oximeter to measure my vital signs?

Yes, checking a patient’s oxygen levels is now one of the 5 vital signs, meaning it is part of the measurements taken to measure the health of a patient’s body. All doctors will have a pulse oximeter.

Will a pulse oximeter detect altitude sickness?

Although a pulse oximeter is not 100% accurate at detecting altitude sickness, it is certainly useful. A pulse oximeter can be used to see how well a person’s body adapts to altitude.

How do I use a pulse oximeter on my child?

It is simple to use a pulse oximeter. When using it on a child, you must ensure the child’s hand is as still as possible and their pulse is stable. You may need to wait a few minutes for their oxygen levels and pulse to be stable. It is also best to use the child’s middle or index finger.

Do I need a pulse oximeter?

Having a pulse oximeter in your house is very helpful as it can help you detect when something is wrong with your body. A pulse oximeter should be treated as a thermometer and kept handy for when you may start to feel sick. It is one of the most recommended medical devices for home care during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Oximeter Questions

How can I measure my oxygen levels without a pulse oximeter?

If you don’t have a pulse oximeter at home, you can measure your O2 by measuring your respiratory rate. To measure your respiratory rate, count the number of breaths you take within a minute. If you take more than 30 breaths per minute, you may have low oxygen levels.

Where can I purchase a pulse oximeter?

Like other home medical equipment, you can purchase a pulse oximeter at your local drug store or online. No prescription is necessary. Since they are commonly used, they are relatively inexpensive and easy to find.

What does low oxygen blood level feel like?

When you have low oxygen levels, you will start to feel shortness of breath and have some difficulty breathing. You may also feel tired. There are many causes and symptoms of low blood oxygen levels which is known by the medical term, hypoxemia.

How accurate is a pulse oximeter?

Pulse oximeters that are FDA-approved are very accurate when the saturation levels are between 90-100%. The accuracy levels tend to decrease slightly at lower levels, but overall the pulse oximeter is very accurate. According to the National Library of Medicine, pulse oximeters are generally 98% accurate with a standard deviation less than 2% variance.

Which finger is better to take your measurement for the pulse oximeter?

The right thumb and middle finger are generally the best for measuring your oxygen levels. They tend to have more oxygen saturation, which makes the reading more accurate.

Can a pulse oximeter detect carbon monoxide?

No, most standard pulse oximeters can not isolate carbon monoxide within the blood, making it unable to detect it.

When should I go to the doctor about my O2 levels?

If you measure your oxygen levels and it drops below 95%, you should contact your doctor. Low levels of oxygen can cause significant damage to your heart and brain, so it is important to see your doctor immediately.

What are some of the medical conditions that a pulse oximeter can help us detect?

Medical conditions that a pulse oximeter can help

There are a variety of medical conditions that can become very serious if left unchecked. Having a pulse oximeter can help you track objective biodata in conjunction with you recording how you feel (subjective data) so that your medical professional can diagnose and treat conditions like:

  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Covid-19
  • Lung cancer
  • Asthma
  • Pneumonia
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

How Does a Doctor Use Pulse Oximetry?

How Does a Doctor Use Pulse Oximetry

Every medical professionals should use pulse oximetry to:

  • Estimate the oxygen saturation in the blood
  • Measure pulse rate
  • Analyze results to determine if there is an underlying condition

To repeat, it does track one of the 5 key vital signs of one’s health. Having this tool handy is imperative to our overall health.

Pulse oximeter controversies and myths

There are some parameters that affect the effectiveness of a pulse oximeter or pulse oximetry.

  1. Skin and fingernail polish

While some people may be worried about the effects of nail polish on the accuracy of the pulse oximetry, research has shown that there is no clinically significant change. Out of 10 nail polish colors that were tested, none of them were clinically significant to the decrease in oxygen.

  1. False positives

Pulse oximeters are mainly accurate and considered highly effective, but there are some possibilities for false results. For instance, there could be a false positive for hypoxemia or low excess levels of oxygen because of different skin pigmentation.

  1. False negatives

Some have also found that pulse oximetry could have a false negative for hypoxemia, which is excess oxygen. You can improve the signals of the pulse oximeter by using a different probe site or warming the skin.


Pulse oximeters are quickly becoming the new norm as a household medical device. They help detect conditions such as asthma or heart attacks. Pulse oximeters can prevent serious damage to the body before it is too late.

Preventing serious conditions by using a pulse oximeter to detect lower oxygen levels is much safer than waiting for a cure after the damage has been done.

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