What is a Handheld Pulse Oximeter?

M. DePietro

A handheld pulse oximeter is a small, portable device that can measure the level of oxygen in the blood. Various types of medical conditions including respiratory diseases and heart conditions can cause trouble breathing. When breathing problems develop, oxygen levels in the blood may decrease.

Most handheld pulse oximeters have a finger probe used to measure oxygen levels in blood.
Most handheld pulse oximeters have a finger probe used to measure oxygen levels in blood.

Oxygen level in the blood is primarily measured in two ways — through analyzing an arterial blood gas or through a measurement from a handheld pulse oximeter. Although larger pulse oximeters are available for use in a hospital, smaller handheld deceives are also used because they can be carried from room to room. The device is easy to use and can also be used at home for people who want to monitor their oxygen levels.

Although some handheld pulse oximeters devices may work slightly differently depending on the manufacturer, most have a finger probe and are attached to a small screen. Two light-emitting beams are contained in the handheld pulse oximeter. One is a red light the other is infrared. The two beams of light detect a pulse and work together to measure the level of oxygen in the blood.

In order to get an accurate reading, any fingernail polish should me removed prior to obtaining a measurement. The finger probe can be placed on any finger. However, the index finger or ring finger are most often used. A person using the oximeter should remain still while testing his blood. Finger movement can interfere with the results.

Inaccurate readings may occur if the finger probe is not entirely on the finger. If a patient has poor circulation, it may also be difficult to get a reading. If the fingers are cold, a strong pulse may not be sensed by the handheld pulse oximeter. Place a warm towel over the hand for a few minutes to warm the finger and try again.

Although a handheld pulse oximeter is most commonly used on a finger, it can also be attached to the ear lobe or a toe to try an obtain a reading. Often the devices will have an indicator light that flashes while a reading is being obtained. After about five seconds a reading should appear on the screen.

Almost all handheld pulse oximeters are battery operated. Some devices may have alarms that can be set. A handheld oximeter can be purchased for home use online or at medical supply businesses. Prices range from a few hundred U.S. dollars up to a thousand.

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