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Why Pulse Oximeters Are Suddenly Super Popular

They're selling out online, likely thanks to coronavirus
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 3, 2020 7:10 AM CDT

(Newser) – On Tuesday morning, Andy Cohen went on Today to talk about his experience with COVID-19. Since he has asthma, the coronavirus was particularly concerning for him, and his doctor recommended he use something called a pulse oximeter. News articles about the devices have also started popping up amid the pandemic, like one from the Wall Street Journal on how to assemble an "emergency home-care kit" and one from the New York Times on how caregivers can keep the elderly safe. So, should you buy one (or try to)? Here's what you need to know:

  • What is it? It's a small electronic device, typically clamped over a fingertip, that measures how much oxygen your red blood cells are carrying. Per Medical News Today, they're typically used by people with respiratory or cardiovascular issues. But sometimes—as now—they can be useful with certain infections.

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  • How helpful is it? A doctor who spoke to Today says the device can help people who are short of breath to know whether they should head to the hospital (a reading below 90% is considered worrisome, though for patients with chronic conditions, a doctor might recommend a different level to monitor for). "In COVID-19, one of the things we're seeing is people with severe pneumonias who come to the hospital have low oxygen levels. One of the ways you can monitor high-risk patients is by asking to get a pulse oximeter they can use at home." Indeed, some medical centers have been sending patients home with them if they're not sick enough to be admitted.
  • What Cohen said: "You can get them at drug stores, and you stick your finger in it to take your pulse. But what it also does is measure the level of oxygen that’s going to your lungs," he explained. "There were some nights where I thought, this doesn’t feel right, and I was able to use this pulse oximeter and see what the reading was. My doctor said, 'If it goes below (a certain) reading, give us a call and then we’ll talk.'"
  • Do you need one? The doctor says probably not. As with many other medical supplies currently, there aren't enough of them to go around, and he says those most likely to develop pneumonia are the only people he'd recommend buy one. That includes older people and those with underlying health conditions.
  • Can you even get one? Maybe not. WFTV and the Staten Island Advance report the devices are selling out on store shelves as well as online. KARE11 reports one business that makes them has seen a ten-fold increase in demand over the past few months.
  • If you do decide to get one, talk to your doctor about it first. The doctor who spoke to Today notes that they're really most useful in a hospital setting. He recommends talking to your doctor about the steps that would be taken if your reading falls below a certain threshold.
(Read more coronavirus stories.)

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