This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
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]
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 Amazon.com 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.