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How to Read a Pulse Oximeter and Other Facts

How to Read a Pulse Oximeter and Other Facts
Latest Update: May 27, 2019

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Pulse oximeters are becoming popular nowadays. They are a device that is used for indirectly monitoring the oxygen saturation level (SpO2) in our bloodstream. How these devices work, how they are used, as well as how to read a pulse oximeter are some of the things that people often want to know and understand, and we are here to help.

How Pulse Oximeters Work

SpO2 is the percentage of the hemoglobin molecules that are bound to our blood’s oxygen level. Hemoglobin, a major oxygen-carrying protein in our blood, changes its color while being bound to oxygen.

Pulse oximeters use sensors for detecting that change, which usually happens due to the movement of oxygen-bound hemoglobin. Owing to these sensors, oximeters can easily monitor the level of oxygen saturation in our bloodstream.

While this device is primarily used in hospitals and medical care units to assess the respiratory health of patients, it is also making its way to gyms. That is because most athletes need to track their oxygen levels while performing high endurance exercises.

Once they have a clear idea about their oxygen saturation level, they can make the necessary adjustment in their workout session to get equalized flow of oxygen. Oximeters are also beneficial for people who perform tedious workouts at high altitudes. In these cases, it helps in preventing the possibility of hypoxia.

In case you’re planning to buy a pulse oximeter anytime soon, here are some guidelines about using it.  Over the next few sections, you will find some detailed steps on taking accurate readings from this device.

How to Use a Pulse Oximeter

A pulse oximeter can be used by following the next few steps:

  1. This device resembles a clip-like tool, and in order to take a reading, you can place it on your fingers, earlobes, or toes.
  2. Upon placing this device, you might experience a small degree of pressure, but there’ll be no pain or irritation. If you’ve visited a medical care unit to get your pulse oximeter reading, a sticky, adhesive-like substance might be applied on your finger or forehead. Also, if you are wearing nail paint, you will be asked to remove it before taking the reading.
  3. The clip is kept as long as it is necessary for monitoring your pulse and oxygen saturation level. If you’re planning to use it for testing your endurance level, it is best to use the device after your workout or during the recovery period.
  4. Once the test is completed, the clip or the adhesive should be removed.

How to Read a Pulse Oximeter

In this section, we will discuss the necessary steps that are required for reading a pulse oximeter accurately.

Step #1: Locating the SpO2 Reading

The first step will involve locating your SpO2 reading. You will find this reading on the digital display of your oximeter, and it is generally available as a percentage (ranging from 90 to 10 percent). The proper and direct location of the SpO2 might vary according to the type of oximeter you are using.

Certain pulse oximeters also feature a bar, indicating the signal strength. This bar usually measures the degree of intensity that is being generated from the signal of the oximeter sensor. Higher signal strength is usually prone to lesser errors.

Ideally, the SpO2 levels of patients range between 96 and 99 percent. If the value is below 90 percent, it is a direct indication of severe respiratory failure.

That said, the normal range of SpO2 can vary depending on the patient. Individuals with chronic respiratory ailment can have a SpO2 level below 90 percent, but it doesn’t indicate that they are having a severe respiratory illness.

Step #2: Identifying the Pulse Rate

As evident from the name, pulse oximeters are also used for measuring the pulse rate of a patient. The pulse rate is generally displayed as two- to three-digit numbers that range between 60 and 100 in most adults. This number might be even higher in kids and infants.

In most oximeters, the pulse rate is displayed in the form of a heart shape. Alternatively, it might also have the letters BPM, which stands for beats per minute, written near it.

Step #3: Locating all Subsequent Measurements on the Screen

Certain highly advanced pulse oximeters can also display the ECG and plethysmogram of the patient. The ECG measures the electrical activity generated by your heart while it is beating. It plays a major role in monitoring your cardiac functions and identifying any potential arrhythmias.

Alternatively, a plethysmogram will display the alteration in the level of oxygen in your blood that occurs with every pulse. These oximeters with advanced features are generally available with medical care practitioners.

How Accurate the Test Is

Pulse oximetry is deemed to a reliable test for measuring your pulse rates, heartbeats, and oxygen saturation levels. While the results are more or less accurate, there may be a two percent difference from what it truly is.

So, if your reading is 90 percent, your oxygen saturation level can be anywhere between 92 and 94 percent. Do note that multiple factors like movement, nail paint, or even temperature can affect the accuracy of your readings.

Your oxygen saturation level should be ideally 95 percent. If it ranges from 90 to 92 percent, it is directly indicative of hypoxemia, which is a condition where your body experiences difficulty in receiving oxygen in the bloodstream. So, if your reading is hovering around 90 percent or less, consult your doctor immediately.

Additional Guidelines

Most pulse oximeters come with a feature where you can change the high and low readings manually. Do not tweak these settings unless prescribed by your medical care professional. If your pulse oximeter probe (that fits along your finger or toe) is loosely fitted, the readings can be inaccurate.

While alarm of your pulse oximeter’s monitor can be silenced temporarily, we would suggest you keep it on. In this way, you will have a clear idea when your oxygen saturation level or heart rate goes below normal.

Wrapping Up

Using and how to read a pulse oximeter are pretty simple, and the process is fast, non-invasive, and painless. Other than the minor possibility of skin irritation, it doesn’t come with any other side effects. Thus, purchase a good pulse oximeter to monitor your oxygen saturation levels while measuring your pulse rate and heartbeat.

Meta Desc: We will teach you how to read a pulse oximeter properly. We will also provide information about how these devices work and how to use them.

Date Published: June 12, 2019

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