Pulse oximeter: what is one and why is Coronavirus causing them to sell out?

Keen athletes will already be familiar with pulse oximeters, so why have they suddenly become the latest item to sell out, and do you really need one? We explain all and where to get one if it is necessary

Kinetic finger pulse oximeter
(Image credit: Argos)

You may have seen pulse oximeter trending online and wondered what they are and why everyone wants one. Of all the pandemic panic buys we have seen so far, this is probably the one we expected the least – yet it makes total sense. A pulse oximeter is a non-invasive way of measuring the oxygen levels in your blood. And, as we know Coronavirus causes the blood oxygen levels to drop as your lungs struggle to function properly. A pulse oximeter will measure how low these oxygen levels have become.

If you are an athlete you may already be familiar with pulse oximeters from your training – a number of running machines have them built in to help you measure you blood oxygen levels as you work out. They clip on to your finger and can feed the results back to a device connected by wire or bluetooth. The best fitness trackers may have them built in too as a way to monitor oxygen levels during a work out to optimise your performance. 

The other category of people who need them is those with longterm respiratory problems such as emphysema or asthma. Some people rely on them for every day monitoring to check if they need assistance or oxygen, and it is this group that could be most affected by the latest panic buying.

Do I need a pulse oximeter?

The short answer is no – not if you don't have chronic respiratory problems. If you are deemed vulnerable then it could be a way to help monitor your oxygen levels, but NHS advice for anyone in this group is to call 111 should you suspect you have Coronavirus, and to follow their instructions. Those who are struggling to breathe should be admitted straight to hospital, you do not need a device to confirm you are in danger.

For the rest of us, a pulse oximeter could trigger panic before symptoms present or be misinterpreted, so unless you are using already using one for training, it is not worth the purchase now.

If you do have people in your family who should be monitoring their oxygen levels (those with respiratory problems mentioned before) and you want to keep an eye on them, then see a range of options below.

As always, please don't stock pile and only order what you need to leave plenty for others.

Kinetic Wellbeing Finger Pulse Oximeter | £19.99 on Argos

This affordable pulse oximeter shows readings in just a few seconds. It includes a lanyard for portability and comes with batteries.View Deal

Garmin Vivosmart 4 Activity Tracker | £79.99 on John Lewis & Partners

Buying a fitness tracker that measure blood oxygen is a preferable (and more versatile) option for many people. While deemed not quite as accurate as some medical-grade finger options, this will keep an eye on your blood oxygen and heart rate.View Deal

Will a pulse oximeter tell me if I have Coronavirus?

A pulse oximeter will NOT tell you if you have coronavirus. They are being used by health professionals to monitor existing patients and those in recovery, but anyone who suspects they have symptoms should refer to NHS Coronavirus advice.

By the time you have low oxygen levels – the thing a pulse oximeter measures – you will already have the physical signs of the disease including a cough and noticeable breathing difficulty. 

As fever is another sign of coronavirus, and often presents ahead of breathing difficulties, a thermometer is the best way to monitor you and your family. The signs are a fever and continuous cough. If you have either of these symptoms, stay at home, take measures to self isolate from your family and ring 111 for help.

More health and wellbeing advice: