June 9, 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

Notes taped to window of possible new year's resolutions with hand in foreground holding marker.
December 1, 2023
How To Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

Pick specific, measurable goals, but also be open to changing them if need be

person holding a thermometer with stress thought bubbles above head
December 1, 2023
Yes, There Is Such a Thing as Stress Sickness

From nausea, weight gain and eczema, stress can affect your immune system in many ways

bowl of soy-based cubes with hand
November 30, 2023
Can Soy Cause Breast Cancer?

Research consistently shows that soy-based foods do not increase cancer risk

person scratching neck that has eczema
November 29, 2023
How Lifestyle Changes and Self-Care Can Improve Your Atopic Dermatitis

Changing your wardrobe or environment won’t eliminate eczema, but it can help reduce flares

person stressing, with clock and books
November 29, 2023
6 Ways To Feel Less Anxious in the Mornings

Breathwork, sleep mediatation and avoiding screens can help fight back morning anxiety

covid toe
November 28, 2023
Are COVID Toes and Rashes Common Symptoms of the Coronavirus?

Chilblain-like skin lesions and rashes probably aren’t COVID related

magnesium pills out of container spelling out MG
November 28, 2023
Magnesium for Anxiety: Does It Help?

This supplement may help with regulating cortisol levels, which may help with stress

woman in her forties, using an inhaler
November 28, 2023
Why Sex Hormones Can Help (or Hurt) Your Asthma

Developmental changes like puberty and menopause can impact symptom severity

Trending Topics

group of hands holding different beverages
November 14, 2023
10 Myths About Drinking Alcohol You Should Stop Repeating

Coffee won’t cure a hangover and you definitely shouldn’t mix your cocktail with an energy drink

Person applies moisturizer as part of their skin care routine after a shower.
November 10, 2023
Korean Skin Care Routines: What You Need To Know

Focus on the philosophy — replenishing and respecting your skin — not necessarily the steps

glass of cherry juice with cherries on table
November 8, 2023
Sleepy Girl Mocktail: What’s in It and Does It Really Make You Sleep Better?

This social media sleep hack with tart cherry juice and magnesium could be worth a try