Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Checking Your Blood Oxygen

Consider adding an oximeter to your pandemic medicine cabinet.

We’re all tired of this wretched virus, but that doesn’t mean it has finished with us. I’m normally an optimist, someone with tremendous faith in human ingenuity. But my best guess is that health care in much of the world is going to be under tremendous strain between now and the end of January.

Reducing our individual risk profile is still a smart move. Low Vitamin D levels appear to be associated with higher COVID-19 hospitalization and mortality. So take a couple of inexpensive Vitamin D tablets a day. (Some evidence suggests Vitamin D drops, which cost more, may be superior to tablets.)

A blood test can tell you if your Vitamin D levels are low, but there seems to be little interest in administering such tests. (In the part of Canada in which I reside, they aren’t covered by provincial health insurance. My better half and I each paid $40 for one recently, nevertheless.) Taking zinc supplements also seems to be a good idea, despite being a bit harder to find in pharmacies.

Please also think about acquiring a way to assess your blood oxygen level – either through a stand alone device known as a pulse oximeter, or via a FitBit, a smartwatch, or even a smartphone app. One of the weird things about COVID is that you can be on the verge of a medical crisis, yet not display the normal warning signs. Writing in the New York Times back in April, physician Richard Levitan explained:

Patients compensate for the low oxygen in their blood by breathing faster and deeper – and this happens without their realizing it. This silent hypoxia…causes even more inflammation and more air sacs to collapse…In effect, patients are injuring their own lungs by breathing harder and harder…By the time patients have noticeable trouble breathing and present to the hospital with dangerously low oxygen levels…their pneumonia is already well advanced… [bold added]

Levitan continued:

There is a way we could identify more patients who have Covid pneumonia sooner and treat them more effectively…It requires detecting silent hypoxia early through a common medical device that can be purchased without a prescription at most pharmacies: a pulse oximeter.

Pulse oximetry is no more complicated than using a thermometer. These small devices turn on with one button and are placed on a fingertip. In a few seconds, two numbers are displayed: oxygen saturation and pulse rate…Pulse oximeters helped save the lives of two emergency physicians I know, alerting them early on to the need for treatment. When they noticed their oxygen levels declining, both went to the hospital and recovered (though one waited longer and required more treatment).

…People using the devices at home would want to consult with their doctors to reduce the number of people who come to the E.R. unnecessarily because they misinterpret their device. There also may be some patients who have unrecognized chronic lung problems and have borderline or slightly low oxygen saturations unrelated to Covid-19. [bold added]

After reading the above, I mail-ordered two oximeters. They took weeks to arrive, but supplies seem to have stabilized since then. On there are now plenty for sale in the $20-$40 range. While awaiting delivery of mine, I downloaded an app on my iPhone that cost $10. You press your fingertip over the phone’s back camera, and it takes a reading. I’ve used it multiple times, and its numbers have been comparable to those produced by the stand alone devices. Strangely, though, that particular app has since disappeared from Apple’s app store.

Stand alone devices usually indicate your pulse/heart rate first (60-100 is normal). The second number is your oxygen level. A normal reading is in the 94-100 range. An informative, recent article over at PC Magazine titled How to Measure Your Blood Oxygen Level With the Apple Watch Series 6, explains that “consistent readings of less than 90% are considered low and a potential sign of some underlying condition.”

If you get a series of such readings, do take them seriously and consult a medical professional. It may be nothing more than a malfunctioning device. Or it may be an important red flag.

There are no guarantees, of course. An oximeter is just a tool. But as we head into what may be a grim holiday season, tools that provide useful information are good to have around. If someone you care about is experiencing COVID-like symptoms, measuring their blood oxygen can help you decide how fast they should see a doctor.

Click to enlarge this poignant photo, of Dr. Joseph Varon embracing an unidentified COVID patient in a Houston ICU on Thanksgiving Day (see below). Photo by Go Nakamura / Getty Images. Screenshot here used in a fair use manner.



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  • I pay close attention to medical professionals who are toiling in the trenches. On Monday, an ABC News story titled Meet the ICU doctor who is going viral for embracing a COVID-19 patient, introduced us to Joseph Varon, who has worked 250+ days straight battling the virus in a Houston hospital. In April, when NYC was exploding, reinforcements were available from elsewhere. But with more US residents than ever now hospitalized with COVID, and with those hospitalizations spread across the country, there’s little ability to recruit out-of-town help.
  • Varon is chief of staff at his hospital. He reportedly speaks nine languages, has won numerous awards, and receives high marks from patients. In this 3-minute video, he says: “I truly believe that the next six to 12 weeks are going to be the darkest weeks in modern American medical history.”
  • He also says: “We’re exhausted. We are tired. I have nurses that, in the middle of the day, start crying because, you know, they keep on getting patients, and there are just not enough nurses that can help us.”
  • A study published in 2018 found that smartphone apps worked just as well as hospital grade oximeters, when tested on 81 young people. You can read it here.
  • If you jump to Amazon by clicking here, and subsequently purchase an oximeter, I’ll earn a small commission as an Amazon affiliate. I use those funds to purchase books from Amazon.



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This entry was posted on December 2, 2020 by in health and tagged .
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