Pulse Oximetry Monitoring - Do You Need It?

by Kathi MacNaughton Health Professional

Pulse oximetry monitoring is now a staple in the management of respiratory health in COPD patients. A portable device first used in health care settings, it is now available to the layperson for home use. I still remember the first time I saw one of these fingertip devices, when my mother was hospitalized several times back in 2007. As a lover of all technology, I was fascinated. When her oxygen supplier recommended we get one a couple of years later, I was all in.

So is this a beneficial tool or just another gimmick on which to spend your money? I will take a closer look at the pros and cons of pulse oximetry monitoring in this post.

What Is Pulse Oximetry Monitoring?

A pulse oximeter is a small device, usually made of plastic, that clamps comfortably on to a fingertip. It has an easily readable display window on the front. Within seconds, your pulse and oxygen-saturation level are measured and posted in this window.

Generally, oximeters are battery operated and easily carried and transported with you wherever you go. They are considered non-invasive -- no puncturing or needles; the reading is obtained right through the fingertip

Do YOU Need a Pulse Oximeter?

Oxygen saturation is the percentage of oxygen in the hemoglobin of the blood in your arteries. In a healthy person with no respiratory issues, oxygen saturation usually runs between 95 and 100 percent. People with COPD often have slightly lower levels, but ideally still in the 90s, at least at rest.

Tracking oxygen saturation can be a useful tool for people with COPD, especially when supplemental oxygen is part of the treatment plan. Knowing your oxygen saturation can tell you when you need to use your oxygen and/or if it is working effectively.

When my mom bought her pulse oximeter about three years ago, it cost more than $100 and was not covered by health insurance. We had to buy it through a medical supply house or our oxygen supplier. However, the price for these devices has dropped significantly over the past few years -- as low as $30 in some cases. Plus, the devices can easily be found at pharmacies, stores like WalMart, and online. Oximeters are now affordable, portable and easy to use.

But do you need one? Well, this is a question best answered during a discussion with your health care provider. A physician or other professional who knows you, your medical history, and your current plan of treatment can help you decide if this device will be useful and worth investing.

Things to Keep in Mind About Pulse Oximeters

Oximeters are a medical device. Though generally reliable and accurate, they may not be perfect. Use them as a tool, not as an absolute measure that things are right or wrong with your health.

What can be most helpful is to log your oxygen saturation readings from an oximeter, along with information about what you were doing around and at the time you took the reading. Looking at this log in context and over a period of time can paint a picture of how well your COPD is being controlled, and whether changes are needed in your treatment plan.

A pulse oximeter can pick up low blood oxygen levels, known as hypoxemia, before you notice any symptoms. This can be important in telling you when to increase oxygen levels (if prescribed), use your rescue inhaler or nebulizer, or call your physician.

Keep in mind that certain things can interfere with the accuracy of oximetry readings:

  • Poor circulation to the fingertips

  • Having cold hands after being outdoors

  • Wearing blue, black or green nail polish

  • Certain medical conditions, such as heart disease

So, while pulse oximetry monitoring can be helpful, it is not a substitute for medical care and management. Work closely with your doctor to establish the oxygen saturation levels you are looking for, given your current health status, and when to call the doctor for further instructions.

Kathi  MacNaughton
Meet Our Writer
Kathi MacNaughton

Kathi is an experienced consumer health education writer, with a prior career in nursing that spanned more than 30 years — much of it in the field of home health care. Over the past 15 years, she's been an avid contributor for a number of consumer health websites, specializing in asthma, allergy, and COPD. She writes not only as a healthcare professional, but also as a lifelong sufferer of severe allergies and mild asthma, and as a caregiver for her mother with COPD.