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What Is a Pulse Oximeter Used For?

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Tracking our health keeps us from getting sick and living a long life. While it is a struggle to make the right choices regarding what we eat, what we think and what we do for exercise, there are ways to monitor our bodies to better understand health conditions.

Among the equipment you can use is a pulse oximeter. This is a clinical and at-home medical device that many people utilize, and if you want to take more control of your health, you should get one. So, what is a pulse oximeter used for?

What is a pulse oximeter?

A pulse oximeter is an electronic medical device measuring the oxygen saturation of your red blood cells. It is a painless procedure where you attach a probe that clips to your finger, toe, ear, foot or even forehead to get a reading.

There are two types of pulse oximeters:

  • A transmission probe that attaches to your fingers, toes or ear lobes.
  • Reflective probes can be placed on a flat body surface, like the forehead.

They are designed to accurately read blood flow that the body transports to the organs and filters in the lungs. Oxygen levels in the hemoglobin proteins are measured by the device to indicate how much oxygen is getting to the organs, and this is called oxygen saturation. When there is more oxygen in the hemoglobin, it will absorb more infrared light but with less oxygen, and it absorbs more red light.

There are also handheld and benchtop devices, wearable watches and monitors, and phone-based, app-connected, and multimodal devices integrated with other monitors.

Uses of pulse oximeter

This device is used for people who want to monitor their oxygen blood levels or need to because of health conditions. You can have a drop in your oxygen saturation because of the following:

  • Sleep apnea
  • Anesthesia
  • Poisonous chemical inhalation
  • Choking
  • Suffocation
  • Lung infections
  • Emphysema
  • Allergic reaction
  • Lung cancer
  • Heart failure

Nighttime Monitoring

A pulse oximeter monitors a person with suspected sleep apnea or severe snoring. A sleep specialist may recommend that their patients wear it overnight for several nights to assess their nighttime breathing and oxygen levels. The feedback provides valuable insight into treatment plans. They are also useful for monitoring the effectiveness of devices like ventilators, oxygen therapy or sleep apnea masks.

Physical Activity Safety

Doctors use these devices as part of their assessment tool kit to determine patients’ activity safety. They use them for feedback during stress tests on cardiovascular and respiratory load. They even advise their parents to wear them during their regular workouts and exercise to see how their body is doing while being overly physical. This can effectively determine what level of activity is safe to perform.


Hospitals use pulse oximeters regularly, especially for vulnerable patients. Neonatal intensive units need to monitor the oxygen saturation levels of infants to alert them of dangerously low levels in these vulnerable newborns. It can quickly give them real-time feedback if there is a need for supplemental oxygen. Other areas of the hospital that benefits from these wearables for patients include:

  • Individuals under anesthesia
  • Those taking drugs
  • Respiratory conditions
  • Cardiovascular conditions
  • COPD
  • Lung cancer
  • Pneumonia
  • Asthma

Assessment Tool

A device like a pulse oximeter helps doctors in hospital and clinic settings effectively monitor their patients. Some uses would be for:

  • Assessing the effectiveness of a new lung medication
  • Evaluating the need for assisted breathing for a patient
  • Determine if a ventilator is effective
  • Assessment tool during a sleep study
  • Determining the need for supplemental oxygen therapy
  • Monitoring the levels of oxygen during sedation or surgery


While these medical devices are a great aid and sometimes life-saving when used properly, some factors reduce their accuracy. These could be:

  • Those with poor circulation or cold hands
  • Those wearing nail polish
  • Other light and colour interference
  • Bilirubin levels
  • Pulse changes
  • Fatigue
  • Poisoning from carbon monoxide
  • Changes in sleeping position
  • Momentary breath holding

Some people with health anxieties may get unnecessary worry from using these devices. On the flip side, they can give a false sense of security as they don’t provide for all oxygen issues a person may have. It is best used personally to monitor and alert someone to go to the doctor for an assessment and complete an exam of their oxygen levels.

This is a pulse oximeter and what it is used for. Your doctor will be familiar with one, and you, too, can benefit from having your device to monitor your oxygen levels at home when needed. Knowledge is power, and knowing where your health is empowers you to take action and receive medical care when necessary.

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