What You Need to Know About Measuring Your Blood Oxygen Levels

It’s common knowledge that your body requires oxygen to function, but did you know that insufficient oxygen in your blood can interfere with the function of the rest of your vital organs and even help to diagnose other medical problems? We’re going to teach you how to properly read your oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter and when to seek professional medical help. 

So first things first, what is a pulse oximeter? A pulse oximeter is a small, lightweight device that is used to monitor the amount of oxygen that is carried throughout the body. Using a pulse oximeter is painless, noninvasive, and many of us have used one before (think of those little clips the doctor secures to your finger at the doctor’s office or a trip to the E.R.). Oximeters just clip to your finger and it measures the oxygen saturation levels in your blood. The purpose of pulse oximetry is to check how well your heart is pumping oxygen through your body.

How does it work?

When you insert your finger into a pulse oximeter, it emits small beams of light through your finger. These light beams target hemoglobin, a protein molecule in your blood that carries oxygen. Hemoglobin absorbs different amounts and wavelengths of light depending on the level of oxygen it’s carrying. In other words, both the oxygenated and deoxygenated blood absorbs the light differently. This gives the oximeter enough information to be able to tell you what your oxygen saturation levels are, along with your heart rate. 

What does the reading mean?

The pulse oximeter will give you a numerical reading, this is a percentage that indicates the level of oxygen saturation in your blood. If your number goes down to 92 or lower, you should check in with your doctor.

Most people will get an oxygen reading around 95 to 98 percent. Some people with existing health conditions may have a lower normal reading. 

What existing health conditions could affect my percentage? 

These existing conditions may include (but are not limited to):

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Asthma
  • Pneumonia
  • Lung Cancer
  • Anemia
  • Heart Attack(s) or Heart Failure
  • Congenital Heart Defects

Why would I need to use one?

There are a number of different common use cases for pulse oximetry, including:

  • to assess how well a new lung medication is working
  • to evaluate whether someone needs help breathing
  • to evaluate how helpful a ventilator is
  • to monitor oxygen levels during or after surgical procedures that require sedation
  • to determine how effective supplemental oxygen therapy is, especially when treatment is new
  • to assess someone’s ability to tolerate increased physical activity
  • to evaluate whether someone momentarily stops breathing while sleeping — like in cases of sleep apnea — during a sleep study


Home health careOxygen levelsPulse oximeter

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