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Although you may associate a pulse oximeter with a hospital, using one at home can be beneficial, too. Perhaps your doctor has requested that you use a pulse oximeter to gather data about your health while at home. Or perhaps you’d simply like to have your own pulse oximeter so you can keep tabs on your health and stay on top of illness.
Even if you don’t know anything about pulse oximeters, you can still make a smart buying decision with the right information in hand. At BestReviews, we perform extensive research in every product category. To avoid bias, we always decline offers from manufacturers for “free” samples. We want to be your go-to source for honest, thorough product reviews you can trust.
We used our research findings to compile the product recommendation matrix above and the shopping guide that follows.
Please continue reading to learn more about pulse oximeters and how to find the best one for your needs.
When a doctor seeks pulse oximetry information, he or she wants to measure the level of oxygen saturation in the blood. This data helps professionals determine how well the body’s organs are working.
A pulse oximeter is a small device that clips over a fingertip. Some people confuse pulse oximetry with the blood-drawing process, but these are two separate tests. A pulse oximeter doesn’t pierce the skin.
If you’re interested in the science behind the pulse oximeter, here’s a basic rundown of how the technology works.
When you wear a pulse oximeter, you may see light emitting from the inside of it. This is normal, as one side of the unit generates light of differing wavelengths.
Often, a unit will generate a minimum of two light wavelengths: red visible light and infrared light. Some units generate other light wavelengths, too.
On the other side of unit’s interior is a light detector. It receives and measures the intensity of the light the generator creates.
A blood draw is a painful process that requires inserting a needle into a vein. Pulse oximetry is different; it’s a non-invasive way to gauge the level of oxygen in the blood.
If your finger were not in the pulse oximeter, the light would easily travel from the generator to the detector. But with your finger in the device, much of the light is blocked and absorbed before it reaches the detector. The detector measures the amount of light that passes through your finger to reach the detector.
By measuring the light, the pulse oximeter determines the oxygenation of your blood. Hemoglobin absorbs light waves when it carries oxygen. Additionally, the pulse oximeter uses the light data to measure blood vessel size and non-oxygenated hemoglobin. Within seconds, the pulse oximeter uses this data to determine your oxygenation level.
Oxygen saturation is a measure of how many hemoglobin proteins in the blood are carrying oxygen molecules.
Because all pulse oximeters adhere to the same basic design, they’re differentiated only by their physicality. You might choose one of three types: a fingertip clip with a screen, a wristband screen with a fingertip clip, or a handheld screen with a fingertip clip.
This pinches onto about half of the index finger. (It doesn’t pinch tightly enough to cause pain.) Similar to the operational design of a clothespin, this is the most common type of pulse oximeter for home use.
The screen and unit are all contained in one device, so you can carry it anywhere. This design is typically also the fastest to set up and use. It gives quick readings after physical activity, which some doctors like to have in their data arsenal. This is the easiest type of design to use at home.
Even though the display screen is sharp, it’s also small. Some people may have trouble reading the screen’s small text.
Finger pulse oximeters have been available for use since 1995.
This attaches to about half of the index finger, and a thin wire connects the clip to the wristband. The device, with its display screen on the wristband, looks a lot like a large smartwatch.
The screen on the wristband is larger than the fingertip clip screen, so it may be easier to read than some other styles. This design tends to fit a little tighter on the finger, so you’re more apt to receive accurate readings while wearing it — especially during sleep.
Because it’s essentially a two-piece unit, it’s not quite as portable as some other designs. Furthermore, the wire that connects the clip to the wristband limits the type of activity you can do while wearing it.
This is the type of oximeter you’re most likely to encounter in a hospital. The clip fits onto about half of the index finger and attaches to a handheld device with a wire. The handheld portion, which is about the size of a thick smartphone, contains a display screen and may also sport control buttons. Alternatively, the fingertip clip may connect via wire to a larger display screen that contains additional data from multiple sensors on the body.
The handheld screen gives you more control over the unit’s operation than other designs. (Other designs are so small that they won’t have many, if any, control buttons.) This design typically boasts a larger display screen, making it easier to read.
This older design is not very portable. You’re limited in the types of activities you can perform while wearing it, as you must hold the unit in one hand. It’s not ideal for use during sleep, and it’s not really designed for at-home use, either.
Some older pulse oximeter units did not have a built-in display screen, but newer units can display extensive data instantly after completing a reading.
Most pulse oximeter models work in a similar manner. That said, you should always read the instructions for your particular model before using it.
Here are the most common steps for using a pulse oximeter —
Most home-based pulse oximeters run on battery power. Make sure the battery is fully charged before you use the unit for the first time. Some units include a battery power indicator on the screen so you know when it’s time for a charge.
Turn the pulse oximeter on. Some units may go through a self-check process. Most units indicate on the display screen when the pulse oximeter is ready for use, though some use an LED light indicator for this purpose. Check the user guide for your unit’s specific indications.
A pulse oximeter that’s low on battery power could provide incorrect readings.
Connect to a Finger:
Some pulse oximeters open and close like a clothespin. You pinch the ends of the pulse oximeter to open the arms, slide your finger inside, and release the ends. It will fit tightly, but it shouldn’t pinch painfully like a clothespin would. Other pulse oximeters may just have a hole or cylinder into which you insert your finger. If your unit requires adhesive to hold it in place, apply the adhesive before inserting your finger.
Some units automatically take a reading when your fingertip touches a pad inside the unit. Others require you to press a start button. The unit indicates completion of the reading either with a display screen message or with an indicator light sequence.
Take Note of Readings:
Although some pulse oximeters will store the readings for you, you should write down your readings, the time at which you took them, and whether they occurred after physical activity. It’s always good to have a backup copy of your data in case the pulse oximeter fails.
Some pulse oximeters use an adhesive to remain in place. This adhesive could irritate the skin.
If you’re wearing dark nail polish, your pulse oximeter may provide a false reading.
An oxygen saturation level of about 95% is considered normal. Saturation levels below 92% are considered below average.
Pulse oximeters are designed to be portable, so testing can be done wherever you are. Some units are more portable than others, though.
Don’t use a pulse oximeter if your fingers are cold after being outside. Warm up your fingers first for a proper reading.
If your oxygenation levels are poor according to your pulse oximeter, don’t panic. Pay attention to any other symptoms you may be having, and if needed, seek medical attention immediately.
Some pulse oximeters will read your pulse at the same time they read your blood oxygenation level. Track this data for your doctor, too.
Q. Why would I use a pulse oximeter?
A. A doctor routinely uses a pulse oximeter with hospitalized patients. For example, he/she may use the data from a pulse oximeter to tell if a patient is progressing properly after sedation for surgery.
Doctors can obtain key information from pulse oximeters used at home, too. For example, if the patient is taking medicine to help the lungs, this device can show if lung function is improving.
Q. What are the dangers of using a pulse oximeter?
A. The drawbacks to this type of device are few. Because it doesn’t pierce the skin, there’s no risk of infection. However, if your unit uses adhesive to secure to your finger, you could experience a skin reaction.
The biggest problem you may have is incorrect data generation. For example, a pulse oximeter that’s not positioned properly could record an incorrect reading.
Q. What should I do if my oxygenation levels are poor?
A. If your doctor has asked you to take pulse oximeter readings, alert him or her immediately to any worrisome results. If you’re having other symptoms that could indicate a serious health problem, you may wish to visit an emergency room.
If you’re receiving worrisome readings but aren’t experiencing other symptoms, make sure your finger is inserted properly. Have a healthy person test the device to see if he/she is receiving poor readings, too. If so, this could indicate a device malfunction.
Q. What are the best pulse oximeter brands?
A. The best pulse oximeter for home use will probably be different from the best pulse oximeter in a hospital. But there are plenty of manufacturers that create quality pulse oximeters for at-home use, including the following.
Acc U Rate
Q. I have to use my pulse oximeter multiple times a day. Any advice?
A. If you must take multiple readings throughout the day, you might wish to purchase a unit you can wear. Some fingertip-with-screen designs ship with a neck strap so you can keep the device around your neck all day. Other units ship with a carrying case that you can clip to your belt. If the unit always stays within reach, it’s much easier to take multiple readings.
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