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Pulse oximeters for use at home aren’t new, but as COVID-19 continues to make health and safety a top priority, more people are looking for ways to manage their health.

Below is a comprehensive guide of pulse oximeters — including what a normal read looks like and how to choose the best product for your needs.

A pulse oximeter (or a “pulse ox” for short) is a device used to measure heart rate and oxygen levels in the body. They are usually found in a hospital or clinical setting, but at-home or consumer electronic versions are available online.

What do pulse oximeters do?

Julie Chen, MD, an internal medicine specialist in California, explains, “One can use a pulse oximeter at home to measure your oxygenation, or at a clinic (or at hospitals) to monitor how much a person is oxygenating, and if blood is saturated enough with oxygen.”

How do pulse oximeters measure blood oxygen levels?

Brooklyn, New York-based physical therapist Chaim Backman, PT, EMT, says, “Pulse oximeters work by shining a light through the finger (or earlobe), and then measuring the reflection of the light beam to see how much light passes through, or gets reflected away from the sensor on the other side. Then, using a mathematical equation, oximeters are able to calculate how much oxygen is in the blood.”

What’s a healthy pulse oximeter measurement?

According to Backman, a normal read from a pulse ox falls within the range of 98 to 99 percent.

Anything below 90 percent indicates something more serious and needs to be addressed urgently, he adds.

John Hill, RRT, of pulmonary services at Deborah Heart and Lung Center in New Jersey, says those living with chronic heart and respiratory conditions benefit most from using a pulse oximeter.

“Patients who have lung or heart conditions, including those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD] and asthmatics, and those with allergies, benefit from monitoring their oxygen levels,” Hill explains.

Vicken Zeitjian, MD, a cardiovascular specialist at UT Health in San Antonio, adds that COVID-19 has also increased the demand for pulse oximeters lately, as it’s a respiratory-borne illness that affects oxygenation status.

“COVID-19 is a respiratory-borne illness, and admission to the hospital is often based on oxygenation status,” Zeitjian says. “While the virus may be present with a variety of symptoms, what should prompt someone to go to the hospital is an oxygen saturation of below 90 percent.”

Chaim explains to Healthline that most at-home pulse oximeters provide accurate readings to users. But he warns that the accuracy of pulse oximetry readings can be influenced by a variety of factors.

What affects pulse oximeter readings?

For starters, nail polish color and decals can affect readings, as can acrylic or gel nails.

“Nail polish can affect pulse oximeter readings if it absorbs light at 660 nm [nanometers] or 940 nm of light,” Zeitjian explained. “This is specifically seen in black, green, and blue nail polish. Also, keep in mind that artificial acrylic nails may also affect the accuracy of pulse oximeter readings.”

Additionally, Chen suggests that the following can affect the accuracy of readings:

  • anemia
  • low blood pressure
  • skin with more pigment
  • low body temperature
  • intravascular dyes, which are used at a hospital for certain tests

“Dark skin and intravascular dyes in the blood cause the sensor to have difficulty in reading oxygenation, as the coloring makes it harder to read,” Chen explains.

“Low blood pressure means blood volume, and anemia means fewer blood cells, which makes the sensor have a harder time seeing the data,” says Chen. ”Similarly, low body temperature also makes blood vessels constrict, making it hard to read as well.”

Board-certified internist Jaydeep Tripathy, MBA-MPH, PhD, says pulse ox probes or sensors can be attached to the finger, nose, ear, toes, and forehead.

The most accurate readings usually occur when the pulse ox is clamped to the finger, specifically the middle finger, as opposed to other body parts, he adds.

However, in a clinical setting, pulse ox probes tend to differ, according to board-certified internal medicine specialist Spencer Kroll, MD, PhD.

“Hospital-based pulse oximeters are linked to machines that measure blood pressure and temperature, and can be linked to a simultaneous measurement of a patient’s heart rhythm,” Kroll says.

“Home-based pulse oximeters only measure the pulse oxygenation and the heart rate, while hospital systems are able to provide a printout of readings,” he adds. ”However, some pulse oximeter accessories can now be linked to smartphones, and can save data for later printout.”

When shopping for at-home pulse oximeters, Zeitjian says there are many brands to choose from.

“Pulse oximeters that are labeled ‘for medical use’ and ‘FDA approved’ are what you should be looking for when purchasing,” Zeitjian advises. “These can be spotted on products found at stores such as CVS, Walgreens, and Target. Most pulse oximeters also measure your heart rate, which is also a plus to many.”

Now that you know how to shop for at-home pulse oximeters, below are nine expert-approved products to keep on your radar, whether you’re using one for yourself or for your loved ones.

Pricing guide

  • $ = under $30
  • $$ = $30-$70
  • $$$ = over $70

Best pulse oximeter for fast results

Oxiline Pulse 7 Pro

  • Price: $$

The Oxiline Pulse 7 Pro is a small, oval-shaped device that hinges open to enclose your finger. It comes with free shipping, a lifetime warranty, and a 30-day money-back guarantee.

“This pulse oximeter is FDA-cleared, and features great nanosensors with high-level detection,” according to Chen. “Both units from the brand [Pulse 7 Pro and Pulse 9 Pro] are also able to provide results in a short time frame, which can be useful to users on a time crunch.”

Pros

  • FDA-cleared
  • provides quick results
  • high-level detection

Cons

  • some reviewers say the screen scratches easily

Best basic or simple pulse oximeter

SantaMedical Generation 2 Fingertip

  • Price: $

This device fits onto your finger and measures your blood oxygen level, pulse rate, and changes in blood flow. Your blood oxygen and pulse are displayed as numerical values and your blood flow will show up as a waveform.

“The SantaMedical Generation 2 pulse oximeter is available for a reasonable price, and has a unique auto shut-off feature after 10 seconds,” Chen explains. “This oximeter also features only one button for ease of use and just requires AAA batteries to power it.”

Pros

  • reviewers note it’s easy to operate
  • comes with protective carrying case
  • display is large and bright

Cons

  • some users say readings can vary greatly

Best ear clip pulse oximeter

Nonin 8000Q2 Reusable Ear Clip Sensor

  • Price: Varies

Looking for a sensor that doesn’t require access to your hands? This clip-on option attaches directly to your earlobe. The brand notes that it is designed to deliver accurate measurements even with dark skin tones.

“Unlike other ear pulse oximeters, this does require a tabletop set to hook up to it, which can be useful to those who want a product with easy setup,” Chen tells Healthline. “However, I generally don’t recommend ear pulse oximeters, since they are usually more expensive and less easy to use.”

Pros

  • works for both spot-checking and long-term monitoring
  • offers an alternative location to get reading

Cons

  • higher price point

Best fingertip pulse oximeter

Innovo Premium iP900AP Fingertip

  • Price: $$

“Like a thermometer, I do recommend that my patients have a portable pulse ox handy as part of their essentials,” says board-certified internist Christine Bishara, MD. “However, patients should always consult with their doctors on their specific medical problems and use of a portable home-use pulse oximeter before purchasing.”

Innovo’s iP900AP pulse ox is available in two models, both of which made the list. The Premium shares the same features and construction for fingertip use with visual and numeric readouts on an OLED display. If you don’t need an alarm feature, the Premium iP900AP may work well for you.

Pros

  • easy to transport
  • ready to use right out of the box
  • reviews report accurate readings

Cons

  • battery setup can be confusing
  • reviewers note that it’s not very durable

Pulse oximeter for kids

Hopkins Handheld

  • Price: $$$

This device has three programs for different age groups: infant, pediatric, and adult. It comes with a 2-year warranty and the AA batteries needed to power it.

“This handheld pulse oximeter can easily be put around soles or palms on children,” Chen says. “However, keep in mind that they are more expensive than oximeters that are used on the finger or toes.”

Pros

  • audible and visual alarms for high/low oxygen saturation levels and pulse rate
  • includes Y-probe neonatal sensor
  • can be used for infants, kids, or adults

Cons

  • higher price point

Oximeter with alarm

Innovo Deluxe iP900AP Fingertip

  • Price: $

“This pulse oximeter has an alarm (which can be muted) and six different layout options,” Chen says. “It’s also ready to use out of the box, as it only requires AAA batteries to power it.”

The main difference between the two Innovo iP900AP models is that this one, the Deluxe, has an alarm.

Pros

  • includes optional alarm
  • six different layout options
  • high quality product

Cons

  • some customers report customer service issues with the company

Best forehead sensor for pulse oximeters

Covidien Nellcor SpO₂ Forehead Sensor with OxiMax

  • Price: $$$

Another product that doesn’t require access to your hands or arms, this pulse oximeter takes its readings from your forehead using an adhesive pad.

“Covidien has an oximeter that contains forehead pulse attachments,” says Chen. “However, oximeters like these are more expensive, and require a tabletop system in order to get a full reading.”

Pros

  • detects low oxygen up to 90 seconds earlier
  • plug-and-play use
  • useful for both kids and adults

Cons

  • higher price point
  • requires a tabletop system

Continuous monitoring

Philips WristOx2 Wrist-Worn Pulse Oximeter

  • Price: Varies

Philips says the WristOx2 model provides long lasting battery life and enhanced memory, which could allow more data to be collected.

“Continuous monitoring should really be reserved for a hospital setting only,” Bishara explains. “This is because pulse ox readings should always correlate with clinical findings that are closely monitored in this type of setting. However, Philips offers continuous monitors for hospitals, as well as portables for patient use.”

Pros

  • Bluetooth-enabled
  • easy-to-read display

Cons

  • Philips has had multiple serious recalls of breathing machines

Best pulse oximeter during exercise

iHealth Air Wireless Fingertip Pulse Oximeter

  • Price: $$

This iHealth oximeter can help you keep track of your oxygen levels and heart rate during physical activity. It can even link to your smartphone to display your oxygen saturation levels, pulse rate, and pulse strength.

You can store your results in the free iHealth MyVitals app to see trends over time. The oximeter comes with a lanyard and a micro-USB for charging. It requires one lithium-ion battery.

Pros

  • Bluetooth technology
  • free smartphone app
  • 12-month warranty

Cons

  • short battery life

ProductPriceLocation of readingEase of use
Oxiline Pulse 7 Pro$$FingertipVery easy
SantaMedical Generation 2 Fingertip$FingertipVery easy
Nonin 8000Q2 Reusable Ear Clip SensorVariesEarlobeDifficult
Innovo Premium iP900AP Fingertip$$FingertipSomewhat easy
Hopkins Handheld$$$Soles or palms (handheld)Easy
Innovo Deluxe iP900AP Fingertip$FingertipEasy
Covidien Nellcor SpO2 Forehead Sensor with OxiMax$$$ForeheadSomewhat difficult
Philips Wrist-Worn Pulse OximeterVariesWristVaries
iHealth Air Wireless Fingertip Pulse Oximeter$$FingertipEasy

Which pulse oximeters are FDA-approved?

There are several pulse oximeters that are FDA-approved, including the Oxiline Pulse 7 Pro. Getting a prescription oximeter that is approved by the FDA for medical use ensures the product’s been vetted for accuracy.

There are many over-the-counter options available that aren’t subject to FDA approval, though. These shouldn’t be used as medical devices.

What pulse oximeters do hospitals use?

While specific products vary by the hospital and its requirements, many hospitals use pulse oximeters created by the following medical manufacturers: Nonin, Philips, Masimo, Innovo, SantaMedical, or Veridian.

These are all well-respected companies that produce a variety of products appropriate for medical grade use.

Can a fingertip pulse oximeter help detect coronavirus?

A fingertip pulse oximeter cannot diagnose coronavirus.

However, if you notice that your oxygen level is reading low on an over-the-counter pulse oximeter, consult your doctor right away. If a low oxygen level reading is accompanied by serious symptoms, like shortness of breath, confusion, or chest pain, seek immediate medical attention.

In short, pulse oximeters are used to monitor oxygen levels in the blood. Those with underlying respiratory and heart conditions benefit most from using these devices, as well as those with COVID-19.

When using a pulse oximeter, look for a healthy range between 98 and 99 percent. A reading under 90 percent requires immediate medical attention.

When shopping for pulse oximeters, look for labels that guarantee safety and efficacy. Similarly, while there are many oximeters available for purchase, it’s best to stick with those that are attached to the fingertips, as they’re often the easiest to use.