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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Coronavirus: What is a pulse oximeter, and why is it now sought after?

The pulse oximeter is used to check the health of patients who have known conditions that affect blood oxygen levels and for those who show symptoms such as shortness of breath.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Published: May 2, 2020 5:53:49 pm
Coronavirus: What is a pulse oximeter, and why is it now sought after? The pulse oximeter can be attached to a person’s fingers, toes, nose, feet, ears, or forehead. (Source: Getty Images)

As healthcare systems around the world struggle to test as well as treat people for Covid-19, some experts have advocated the use of a medical device called the ‘pulse oximeter’ for testing those who have the disease, or those suspected of having it.

The device, used to measure oxygen levels in the blood, is being recommended for the early detection of ‘Covid pneumonia’, a potentially deadly condition seen among the most severe coronavirus cases.

What is a pulse oximeter?

According to John Hopkins Medicine, “Pulse oximetry is a test used to measure the oxygen level (oxygen saturation) of the blood. It is an easy, painless measure of how well oxygen is being sent to parts of your body furthest from your heart, such as the arms and legs.”

The device is generally used to check the health of patients who have known conditions that affect blood oxygen levels, such as heart and lung conditions, and for those who show symptoms such as shortness of breath.

The device measures the saturation of oxygen in red blood cells, and can be attached to a person’s fingers, toes, nose, feet, ears, or forehead. It can be reused or disposed of after use.

Based on the information from the blood oximeter, a healthcare provider can take a decision about whether a person needs extra oxygen.

Why is the device sought after during Covid-19?

According to an opinion piece in the The New York Times by physician and inventor Richard Levitan, a pulse oximeter can help identify a potentially deadly condition in Covid-19 patients called ‘Covid pneumonia’ sooner and more effectively, and thus help save more lives.

Among those who contract the novel coronavirus, the most severe cases are those who develop Covid pneumonia.

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This disease affects the lungs’ ability to transfer oxygen. It also causes difficulty in breathing. When a person cannot inhale enough oxygen and exhale enough carbon dioxide, the pneumonia can lead to death.

Compared to other kinds of pneumonia, Covid pneumonia is especially severe as it completely affects the lungs instead of small parts. Also, most other types of pneumonia that are known are bacterial, and treated using antibiotics. This is not the case with Covid pneumonia, as it is viral. Patients are required to be put on ventilator support in such severe cases to ensure adequate circulation of oxygen in the body.

In the NYT piece, Levitan has said that a pulse oximeter could help in the early detection of ‘silent hypoxia’, a form of oxygen deprivation that is known to precede Covid pneumonia.

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Using the device, those who have Covid-19 or those suspected of having it, can check their oxygen levels early on. A fall in oxygen levels, caused by the silent hypoxia, can serve as a signal for seeking additional treatment immediately, and not wait for a coronavirus test.

The same method of early detection of hypoxia worked in the case of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the article said.

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