Why We All Need a Pulse Ox

John Whyte, MD

Disclosures

August 26, 2021

Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone. I'm Dr. John Whyte, the Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. Got a question for you: What's in your medicine cabinet?

I bet you have a thermometer. You probably have some extra hand sanitizer. And I bet you have some Band-Aids too. Those are all good, but there's one other thing that you need to have in that medicine cabinet nowadays, and that's a pulse ox, or a pulse oximeter.

You probably have seen this when you went to the emergency room or urgent care, maybe even your doctor's office. They put it on your finger, it beeps. And it gives you two numbers. It gives you your heart rate, but it also gives you your oxygen saturation: how much oxygen is in your blood.

And that's really important to know, especially when we're coming upon cold and flu season and COVID is still around. Now when you have COVID, there's often problems with how well you're oxygenating. And the pulse ox can help guide you in terms of whether or not you need to go see your doctor or go to the emergency room.

There's something called the oxygen dissociation curve. It's S-shaped. And if you look at the top part of that S, around 92%, there's that big drop. And what that means is sometimes when you have COVID, you're still breathing OK, you're not gasping for breath, but you're not oxygenating well.

And that's why sometimes we see patients seem to be doing well one minute, and then a little later, they actually have to be intubated. So if you're able to measure your percent oxygenation at home, you can get a good sense of how well you or a loved one is doing. You want to make sure that it's above 95%.

If it's around 92%, you need to call your doctor, and perhaps go to the emergency room. Now, if you have nail polish on, you're going to have to take it off to get an accurate reading. And there's even a pulse ox for kids. It's smaller. So don't try to put yours on your kids because you're not going to get an accurate reading.

So I'd like you to consider getting a pulse ox to help you figure out what you need to be doing when you're concerned about COVID this fall. Thanks for watching.

This interview originally appeared on WebMD on August 26, 2021

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