The majority of patients affected by COVID-19 will have a self-limited illness that will not require hospitalization or significant medical intervention. Unfortunately, some patients with COVID-19 will develop acute lung injury, usually after about 7 days of illness. This results in a sudden decrease in the ability for the body to absorb oxygen. These patients often require hospitalization and may require intensive care and to be placed on a ventilator. One of the first signs that a patient may be headed down this second path may be a low oxygen reading on a pulse oximeter.
What is a pulse oximeter and do I really need one?
A pulse oximeter is a small device that clips onto your fingertip and is able to noninvasively measure oxygen saturation (the amount of oxygen being carried by your blood). While this device is commonplace in the healthcare setting, it was previously unusual for patients to be measuring their oxygen saturation at home. For patients sick with COVID-19, however, this device may be a lifesaver.
While the science behind this is not yet clear, many doctors have found that even before a patient with COVID-19 realizes they are getting seriously ill, they may develop a low oxygen level or “silent hypoxia”. For this reason, some doctors recommend daily home monitoring with pulse oximeters for patients with COVID-19. Emergency departments have even begun providing pulse oximeters to patients with COVID-19 to take home after an ED visit. By monitoring their oxygen levels at home, patients with COVID-19 may be able to detect serious respiratory issues earlier and get back to the hospital before it is too late.
So do you need one? For patients who have not been seen by a doctor and diagnosed with COVID-19, it is very unlikely that a pulse oximeter is going to be helpful (and will likely cause undue stress!). But if you, or someone you care about, has been diagnosed with COVID-19, it might not be a bad idea to speak with a doctor about home pulse oximetry monitoring.
Please click here for access to the original article in the New York Times.
Please click here to listen to Dr. Dagan’s interview on this subject on NPR’s Weekend Edition.
Please click here for an article on this subject in The Guardian in which Dr. Dagan is quoted.