Ever since COVID-19 became a global pandemic, concerned parents have been desperately trying to keep their children safe and healthy. Although COVID-19 symptoms are not the same for everyone, a simple test could help with early detection, and you can easily do it if you own a pulse oximeter at home.
Despite the difference in severity, one common sign before anyone exhibits COVID-19 symptoms is a decline in oxygen levels and shortness of breath. It is also known as ‘silent hypoxia’ or low oxygen levels in the body, and, as the name suggests, it could silently affect you or your loved ones if left unchecked.
While children may have milder symptoms than adults, they can also face health complications, especially those with underlying illnesses. Although the government has approved vaccination for children aged 5-11 years, having an oximeter at home is still a plus point.
To understand this, one needs to know the function of the pulse oximeter. A finger pulse oximeter helps to measure two things:
- Blood Oxygen Saturation (SpO2) or your blood oxygen levels, and
- Pulse Rate (the number of times your heart beats per minute).
By using a pulse oximeter, you are able to monitor your pulse and identify a drop in oxygen levels earlier or determine any other abnormalities that may require medical attention. It is also a good idea to keep a pulse oximeter at home, if you or a family member suffers from oxygen-related and heart conditions, such as:
- heart attack
- Heart failure
- Lung cancer
- Sleep apnea
Here is what to expect when using a pulse oximeter and how it works.
What is a pulse oximeter?
A pulse oximeter is a simple, non-invasive, and portable test that determines whether your blood is carrying enough oxygen throughout your body or not. It is a small device that you can clip onto your finger, toe, or ear to get a reading, and there are two types of oximeters available on the market: the over the counter ones and prescription ones.
The pulse oximeter works by shining a light beam through the skin to measure the percentage of oxygen in haemoglobin proteins, known as oxygen saturation or SpO2. The test is painless, quick and doesn’t involve needles.
There may be instances when a pulse oximeter is not 100% accurate. Several factors such as your skin’s temperature, wet hands, darker skin tone, thick nails, the interference from having nail polish on, or if your child is extremely wriggly can all contribute to an inaccurate reading. To get a more accurate result, remove any fingernail polish on the finger where you will be clipping the pulse oximeter. You are also encouraged to remain as still as possible and have a relaxed hand below your heart level. This may prove to be rather challenging when it comes to younger children, but you can try reading to them as a form of distraction so that they remain calm.
The entire test does not take very long, at most 45 seconds to a minute, to complete. You should get a reading within a few seconds of turning the device on, although it may fluctuate for a few seconds. Your heart rate and oxygen saturation level will be on the display screen, but you will have to wait until you get a steady number, which should be your reading.
Understanding your reading and when to worry
According to the World Health Organisation, normal oxygen saturation levels are readings that show anything between 95% and 100%. If your result is lower and falls below 94%, it can be an early sign that medical attention is needed, bearing in mind that there is an error window of 2% when using a finger pulse oximeter. Another essential thing to note is that your normal range can also vary if you have other health complications, so be sure to check in with your doctor to find out your range and continue to monitor from there.
If your oximeter shows readings lower than 94%, then you might want to consider making a trip to the doctor’s to have it evaluated. Results under 90% are abnormally low, and you will likely need medical attention. Other symptoms following this include:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- rapid heartbeat
However, you need to remember that every pulse oximeter is slightly different, so take the time to familiarise yourself with its features before doing a test. If your test reading is still low despite everything, it is always good to seek professional medical advice for peace of mind.
Is it essential to have an oximeter at home?
We think so because having an oximeter at home means you can detect an early drop in oxygen levels and continue to monitor your progress from the comforts of your own home at any time. Sometimes children and loved ones may not experience any symptoms or show any signs within the first few days – some not even for weeks until they become very sick. Early detection is always best so that those affected can receive prompt medical attention if deemed necessary. The goal here is to minimise further complications or damages to the lungs and other vital organs so that our children are not affected for life.
Is a pulse oximeter safe to use on babies?
Yes. There are hardly any risks when it comes to using pulse oximeters on babies therefore it is safe. You will, however, need to get a pediatric pulse oximeter because using an adult one on an infant will not give you an accurate reading. If you will be using the oximeter on both children and adults, it is recommended that you purchase a hand held with adult sensor and an extra pediatric sensor.
To set yourself for success, you can try swaddling your baby so that they remain calm enough for you get an accurate reading. Similar to the adult ones, pediatric oximeters work the same way although you may need to learn proper placing and test can last anywhere from 3-5 minutes depending on how wriggly your baby is.
Test readings that is 95-100% is considered a negative screen or a pass. You may need to repeat the test in the next hour if results show 90-94%. If test results remain 90-94% on the third try, you may need to contact your pediatrician.
Readings that are below 90% is considered a fail where your baby will need to be evaluated to find out the cause for the hypoxemia and run some tests to rule out heart defects.
The decision to keep a pulse oximeter at home is entirely yours. We think owning one at home offers parents a way to monitor early signs of low oxygen blood levels and to get immediate medical attention when it is required. The test is simple enough to do at home, it is quick, painless, and convenient. Although it wouldn’t be as accurate as those used in hospitals but medical grade pulse oximeters are good enough. If you suspect you or your child or any of your loved ones may have a more serious breathing condition, seek emergency medical attention right away.