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In its revised guidelines for home isolation of mild or asymptomatic Covid-19 cases, the Union health ministry has advised self-monitoring of blood oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter for the patient.

The patient may self-monitor breathing rate or the respiratory rate in sitting position, breathe normally and count the number of breaths taken in 1 full minute, the guideline said.

The patient shall self-monitor his/her health with daily temperature monitoring and report promptly if any deterioration of symptom is noticed, it further said.

What's a pulse oximeter?

Pulse oximeter has gained attention for its potential in diagnosing and monitoring Covid-19 symptoms. The device is mostly used for monitoring patients in hospital including those who have had some surgeries and at homes by people with respiratory problems.

A small equipment that clips onto a person’s finger, pulse oximeter measures pulse and the percentage of oxygen in the blood.

The idea is that by monitoring your own oxygen levels at home, you can be reassured your lungs are adequately oxygenating your blood. Alternatively, detecting low levels of oxygen may indicate you need urgent medical care.

How does it work?

Most types of pulse oximeter you can buy for use at home are designed like a large clothes peg you clip onto your fingertip.

One side of the clip shines a light through your finger to a sensor on the other side of the clip.

This gives a measure of the colour of your blood. Blood carrying more oxygen (oxygenated blood) is a brighter red than the bluer de-oxygenated blood.

The oximeter interprets the colour of the blood (via the amount of light absorbed) to provide a number – the percentage of oxygen in the blood compared to the maximum amount that can be carried.

This percentage is the “oxygen saturation" level. For healthy people this is 95% to 100%.

As the oximeter measures blood from the pulse in your finger, it will also display your heart rate (heart beats per minute).

Are the readings accurate?

Oxygen saturation readings are generally very accurate. However, poor circulation, or cold or moving fingers can make it difficult for the device to find the pulse or may trick the probe into measuring the movement as a pulse.

If you have cold fingers or poor circulation you might have to try another finger, or warm your hands by rubbing them together before retaking a reading. You’ll also need to keep still and reduce your hand movement while taking a measurement. This might be a challenge for taking readings on small children!

Nail polish, particularly dark colours, can cause misleading oximeter readings and is why we ask people to remove it before having a general anaesthetic in hospital.

However, nail polish has less of an effect compared to acrylic nails. So it’s best to remove nail polish or acrylic nails on the fingers you’ll use for testing.

Should you buy one?

Off course! If you can afford it. The concern many health professionals have is that, just like rapid antigen tests, oximeters may become difficult to access as numbers of cases in the community accelerate.

Just as most households have a thermometer, a simple low-cost oximeter will allow us all to monitor our health and seek help if things change.

Pulse oximeters are currently available online and from pharmacies. You can use the same one for multiple people in a household, including both adults and children. However, you do need to clean the oximeter before using it on the next person.

With agency inputs

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