June 8, 2020

Should You Get a Pulse Oximeter to Measure Blood Oxygen Levels?

Keeping tabs on coronavirus symptoms

Pulse oximeter in use on finger

First, it was hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. The latest item flying off the shelves in response to the 2019 novel coronavirus? The pulse oximeter, a medical device that clips to your finger to measure the amount of oxygen in your blood.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

But is this something you actually need in your medicine cabinet? The answer is, it depends, says pulmonologist Wayne Tsuang, MD.

He breaks down what a pulse oximeter — or “pulse ox”— can tell you, and whether you might want to get one.

Coronavirus and blood oxygen levels

Oxygen is the fuel your body needs to function. Insufficient oxygen in the blood can interfere with the function of the heart and brain.

Doctors have discovered that some people with COVID-19 have dangerously low blood oxygen — even though they don’t feel short of breath.

“We’re seeing reports of ‘silent hypoxia,’ or low oxygen levels in some patients without severe symptoms,” Dr. Tsuang says.

In response to those reports, people have started buying pulse oximeters to keep tabs on their oxygen levels if they get sick.

Should you invest in a pulse ox?

  • If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19: If you’ve caught the virus and are recovering at home, a pulse oximeter can give you some important data points to share with your doctor. If your oxygen levels fall too low, your doctor may want you to come in for more testing or hospital care, Dr. Tsuang says.
  • If you don’t have COVID-19 but have other medical conditions: Buying a pulse oximeter might be a good idea if you have underlying illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease or lung diseases, Dr. Tsuang says. “In those cases, it’s helpful to do at-home monitoring so you can gather more information to give to your doctor.”
  • If you’re healthy: If you’re otherwise healthy and have no symptoms of COVID-19, a pulse oximeter is not a must-have item for your medicine cabinet, Dr. Tsuang says. And just like the Great Toilet Paper Craze of March 2020, there could be shortages if everyone rushes out to buy a pulse oximeter. “We want to make sure people with lung diseases who need the devices for home monitoring still have the opportunity to get them,” he adds.

What to look for in pulse oximeters

Pulse oximeters come in a wide variety of styles and price points. Dr. Tsuang recommends buying one from a reputable store or website, such as a pharmacy or medical device supplier.

Some smart watches and fitness trackers also measure blood oxygen saturation. But they might not be as reliable as medical devices, he cautions, so take the numbers with a grain of salt.

Blood oxygen: How low is too low?

What should you be looking for? A healthy oxygen saturation is typically above 90%. If your number dips below 90%, Dr. Tsuang says, call your doctor for advice.


Remember, too, that low oxygen is just one sign of COVID-19. Even if you have a healthy blood oxygen level, don’t ignore other possible symptoms, like cough or shortness of breath.

“The pulse ox is just one piece of data,” says Dr. Tsuang. “If you have any concerns or questions, your doctor will look at all of your symptoms and vital signs to get the whole picture.”

Related Articles

male sitting on couch using inhaler and holding chest
January 9, 2024
Understanding the Difference Between Asthma and COPD

Both conditions have similar symptoms, but different causes and treatments

female with hand on chest holding inhaler in other hand, with of breathlessness float in background
January 4, 2024
Preventing COPD Exacerbations and Flare-Ups

You can reduce your chances of a flare-up by quitting smoking, avoiding respiratory infections and following your doctor’s orders

close up of arm with nicotine patch on it
January 3, 2024
How (and Why) to Quit Dipping for Good

Nicotine replacement products and relaxation techniques can help you ditch the dip

lit cigarette floating in black background
January 2, 2024
WARNING: Even Light Smoking Affects Respiratory Health

Even only a couple cigarettes a day can lead to potentially deadly lung diseases like COPD and emphysema

older male patient speaking with doctor holding tablet in office
December 21, 2023
What’s My Risk of Lung Cancer After I Quit Smoking?

Your risk goes down once you quit, but you may still need a lung cancer screening

close up of a person with oxygen supply in nose
December 19, 2023
Have COPD? Exercise Can Help Keep You Out of the Hospital

Get improved quality of life and breathe better

male doing yoga breathing exercises seated on a bed
December 17, 2023
Should You Try an Alternative Asthma Treatment?

The effectiveness and safety of many of these options are unknown, so it’s best to stick to traditional care

asthma triggers floating around a set of lungs and a person
December 10, 2023
How To Stop an Asthma Cough

Avoid triggers like dust, smoke and cold air to lessen your chances of coughing

Trending Topics

close up of keto gummies
Do Keto Gummies Work for Weight Loss? Are They Safe?

Research is inconclusive whether or not these supplements are helpful

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

Older person postioned sideways showing dowager hump.
Dowager’s Hump: What It Is and How To Get Rid of It

The hump at the base of your neck may be caused by osteoporosis or poor posture