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The Importance Of Pulse Oximeter In The COVID-19 Crisis

Dr. Pragnya rao

This device could potentially save a life & alleviate panic during the ongoing pandemic.

As the number of cases in India is on a steep rise, the healthcare system is overburdened with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic- not just for those who are infected but also for the management of various non-COVID conditions and emergencies. While MFine has clinicians from over 30 specialities who are not only devoting time to the frontline but also are being available online in order to tend to patients, it must become our duty at this critical time to stay informed and safe at home so we can help flatten the curve!

The surge in cases has also caused the sensitization of terms like ‘oxygen saturation’ and ‘pulse oximeter’ in associated with the COVID-19 infection. The virus, named SARS-CoV-2 causes a respiratory illness where patients often complain of shortness of breath and chest tightness apart from fever, cough and fatigue among other symptoms. 

What is oxygen saturation or SpO2?

Haemoglobin present in the blood carries oxygen to the cells of the body. This process is very important to ensure the proper functioning of organs and tissues. Any deficiency of oxygen can lead to adverse effects on individual organ systems. Oxygen saturation (SpO2) is a fraction of oxygen-saturated haemoglobin, in relation to the total haemoglobin present in the blood. The normal values of SpO2 range from 92 and 100%. Values are usually between 94-96 per cent. However, a value below 90% during a COVID-19 infection can indicate low oxygen level, also known as hypoxemia. Hypoxemia can lead to multiple issues like organ failure and cardiac arrest if not treated on time. 

What is a pulse oximeter?

A pulse oximeter is a non-invasive device that measures the blood oxygen level. It works by using infrared rays to measure the amount of oxygen (blood gas) present in the capillaries, especially in the finger-pulp.  A fingertip is inserted into the device and is held there for 6-10 seconds. The values of SpO2 and pulse rate are displayed on the device. Having dark nail-polish or cold extremities can show lower values of SpO2 than it actually is. It is advised to remove any nail polish since it can interfere with the accuracy of the measurement. 

What causes low SpO2 and how can a pulse oximeter help?

There are many reasons why one could have low oxygen saturation. A low SpO2 is seen in patients who are suffering from respiratory distress, COPD, asthma and anaemia among others.  In some patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, the infection can lead to fluid-filled air sacs, which in turn can lead to pneumonia. This translates to respiratory distress, thereby causing the patient to experience shortness of breath, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, etc.  Some patients may have low oxygen saturation and still have no symptoms. Asymptomatic patients who have been found to have COVID-19 may be unaware of the SpO2 depletion if they are able to breathe just fine. Moreover, some might experience confusion and even feel euphoric which cannot be directly linked to oxygen deprivation. This is being commonly dubbed as ‘Happy Hypoxia’. A gradual drop in oxygen saturation has been noticed in COVID positive patients. This has in turn brought forward the importance of a pulse oximeter. 

The takeaway

If you are in the high-risk group (people with diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, etc) or if you are home-quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19, then it would be a good idea to have a pulse oximeter with you. If the SpO2 levels are dropping below 90 per cent, you will need hospitalisation and inhalational oxygen as part of your treatment. 

Keeping yourself informed about your health during these testing times can contribute to the well being of you and your family. You do not need a prescription to buy a pulse oximeter. This simple device could potentially save a life and alleviate panic around such situations. If you have any flu-related symptoms, make sure that you isolate yourself at home and consult doctors online on MFine. You can also take an assessment test to examine the level of risk of exposure you might have. 

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