Shortness of Breath? A Pulse Oximeter Might Help You Check Oxygen Levels (2024)

Pulse oximeters are helpful devices that can help check heart rates and oxygen saturations for patients with underlying heart or chronic lung conditions, says Thomas Yadegar, M.D., medical director of the intensive care unit at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center. It’s not always obvious when oxygen saturation has dipped below a healthy level, especially if you live with a chronic condition that includes shortness of breath as a common symptom. Being able to take an accurate measure of your oxygenation at home can save you an unnecessary trip to your doctor (or to urgent care) and alert you when you need emergency medical attention. The awareness that COVID infections can cause breathing difficulties—and that those difficulties can be detected at home with these small, handy devices—caused many people to wonder if they should add a pulse oximeter to their arsenal of at-home wellness tools.

To help you make an informed choice, we tested 10 pulse oximeters in our Lab to determine which ones were the easiest to set up and use, which fit the most comfortably and gave the most accurate readings, and which made it easiest to read and interpret our results. A pulmonologist on our Medical Expert Board also reviewed this article for medical and scientific accuracy regarding what to look for in a pulse oximeter, their accuracy, and who could benefit from using one.

How Pulse Oximeters Work

According to Luis Javier Peña-Hernández, MD, a lung health specialist at the Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Disorders Institute of South Florida, pulse oximeters work by measuring the color changes of the nail bed with infrared light. The light estimates the oxygen saturation of the blood flowing through that tissue. This can give the user critical information about their oxygenation, alerting people when chronic breathing conditions (or even COVID or the flu) have affected their oxygen levels.

Any patient with a chronic respiratory illness where oxygen saturation drops would benefit from having a pulse oximeter at home, says Dr. Peña-Hernández. This includes conditions that require patients to use oxygen at home, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and interstitial pulmonary fibrosis, as well as conditions where oxygenation may be impaired, such as congestive heart failure and chronic renal failure.

Why We Like It

We couldn’t find anything we didn’t like about the Oxiline Pulse 9 Pro, which is one of the (many!) reasons we chose it as our best overall pick. After inserting batteries, the Oxiline worked quickly and easily to detect our blood oxygen level, and our results were displayed clearly and brightly.

The most notable thing we liked about the Oxiline Pulse 9 Pro in our testing was that the results were readable from various directions; it didn’t matter which hand we used it on or how we viewed the display. This is a bonus for caregivers who might be using the device since it allows multiple people to view the readings from different POVs.

In other features, we liked that this device came on a lanyard for easy carrying and that it fit well on our fingers, staying in place comfortably while it took our readings. We also noticed that it wasn’t overly sensitive to where it was placed on our finger, which means we didn’t need to adjust it repeatedly to place or keep it in the right location.Oxiline is a bit more expensive than its competition, but its complete ease of use made it stand out to us when we tested it as a device worth investing in.

Product Details:

  • Dimensions: not listed
  • Power Source: AAA Batteries
  • App: No

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Why We Like It

The Zacurate Pro Series 500DL comes with instructions, but you won’t need them—this oximeter is intuitive to operate and quick to read, so we’ve chosen it as the easiest to use. During our testing, we appreciated the wide range of adjustability offered by the Zacurate to accommodate most finger sizes while fitting snugly once in place. We were impressed by the large, bright display and the clear markings indicating our blood oxygen and blood pressure readings, making it easy to differentiate between them.

Additionally, we found the magenta color to be a refreshing departure from the usual oximeter offerings, and it also makes it easier to locate the device if needed. We found this to be a simple and straightforward device, which is good for accuracy and ease of use. We found it extremely easy to operate, as it only requires turning on the power button and provides readings in a matter of seconds. It's an ideal device for anyone who wants a no-frills option that they can use without needing to go through an extensive setup process.

Product Details:

  • Dimensions: 2.25”L x 1.2”W x 1.25”H
  • Power Source: AAA batteries
  • App: No

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Why We Like It

In terms of fit, setup, and display, the Insignia Pulse Oximeter scores high marks similar to the other devices on this list, an impressive achievement considering it’s also the least expensive option here. It was quick to get to work when we added batteries, giving us our results on a clear, crisp LED display. We also noted that it had a good, snug grip around our fingers and a wide range to accommodate a variety of finger sizes.

Our testing of the Insignia oximeter showed that its sensitivity could be either positive or negative, depending on the user's needs. If we didn't align or position our fingers correctly, the device would not accurately read our blood oxygen level, which was frustrating. However, some users might see this as a positive quality, indicating higher accuracy. Once we placed the oximeter correctly, it worked perfectly fine. Overall, we believe that this budget-friendly pick will satisfy most users.

Product Details:

  • Dimensions: 2”H x 3.75”L x 3”W
  • Power Source: AAA batteries
  • App: No
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Our Ratings

  • Setup

    5/5

  • Fit

    4.5/5

  • Ease of Use

    5/5

  • Data Display

    4.5/5

  • Overall Value

    4.5/5

Why We Like It

Setup was a breeze with the Thrasio Accare Pulse Oximeter, but we loved the large, bright display and the super visible results, which is why it appears on our list as the best large display oximeter. While we think this one may work better for people with smaller fingers, as the device doesn’t open up quite as wide as some other models, the speediness with which it detects your blood oxygen levels and the clear way it displays them makes it a worthwhile pick.

It gives a very clear reading and differentiates between blood pressure and blood oxygen. Its bright red numbers are easy to read and clear, making it great for anyone looking for a no-frills device with visual impairment. In other specs, the Accare oximeter is small, lightweight, and has a lanyard so that it can be taken anywhere. It’s pretty low-tech, but we think that makes it easier to use for someone who doesn’t want a lot of distractions.

Product Details:

  • Dimensions: not listed
  • Power Source: AAA batteries
  • App: No

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Our Ratings

  • Setup

    5/5

  • Fit

    5/5

  • Ease of Use

    5/5

  • Data Display

    4/5

  • Overall Value

    4.5/5

Why We Like It

We’ll admit we had a tough time getting the children’s version of the Zacurate Oximeter to fit on our fingers, but that’s a good thing in this case! It’s sized appropriately for small hands, and the ultra-cute design makes it less intimidating to kids who might be wary of having their blood oxygen levels read.

During our testing, we found that this oximeter is an excellent choice for kids. It takes only a few seconds to obtain a reading, which is a significant advantage, especially if your child is restless. It features a large and bright display and includes a protective cover that can help keep it clean and functional, providing protection from spills. However, we noted that while the results are displayed clearly, children may not understand how to interpret them unless they receive guidance from a parent or instructions. Moreover, no app connectivity is available for parents to view data independently. Therefore, parental supervision is necessary.

Product Details:

  • Dimensions: 2”L x 1.15”W x 1.1”H
  • Power Source: AAA batteries
  • App: No

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Why We Like It

With app connectivity and a unique design, Wellue Viatom stood out. It was stellar at detecting blood oxygen levels and gave us the tools to track and interpret our data. We were wowed by the design of the Wellue, which slips over your upper finger like a ring instead of clipping onto your fingertip. The ring was comfortable to wear and vibrated when it was done taking the reading, which was displayed on the ring and sent to the app for review.

The ring-shaped oximeter has a flexible material that allows it to adjust to different finger sizes. It is made of a silicon-like material that is comfortable to wear and fits well on fingers of varying shapes. During our testing, we found the app to be user-friendly and informative. It displays real-time blood oxygen percentages and heart rates and saves readings for future reference. The app also has a settings page where we can customize reminders to check our blood oxygen, change the device's vibration and screen brightness, and connect it to Apple Health. We appreciated that the oximeter can be used independently of the app since the results appear on the display screen.

This oximeter is the most expensive option available, but it is worth the investment if you struggle to interpret the data from standard oximeters. It allows you to view and analyze your data over a longer period of time, which you can even share with your healthcare provider. For some users, this feature justifies the extra cost.

Product Details:

  • Dimensions: 1.5''L x 1.2''H x 1.5''W (ring perimeter adjustable from 2” to 3.2”)
  • Power Source: rechargeable lithium battery
  • App: Yes

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With the supervision of medical professionals, the Health team tested 10 pulse oximeters in our Lab to see how easily and accurately they could measure our oxygen saturation. We evaluated each device for the following factors, which we determined to be the most important when choosing between pulse oximeters available for at-home use:

  • Reading consistency and Accuracy: All of our testers were asked to abstain from wearing any nail polish on their fingers (it can interfere with test results), and hand warmers were provided to improve the accuracy of test results.We performed several tests. First, a medical professional measured our blood oxygen levels, and then we compared those results to the readings given by each pulse oximeter to see how close the readings were. We also repeated our testing on both hands five minutes apart and performed repeated tests before and after 30 seconds of vigorous exercise.
  • Setup and Ease of Use: We evaluated each device to see how ready it was to use right out of the box and how quickly and easily the display with our results could be read. As for fit, we considered how accommodating the device would be to many different sizes of fingers and whether we had any discomfort while using it, such as pinching or chafing.
  • Data display: We considered how clearly our results were displayed and how easy it was to interpret them. We considered whether the device could store our data over time and whether it came with instructions for understanding readings and telling one type of reading (such as oxygenation) apart from another (like blood pressure or heart rate). For devices with app connectivity, we also assessed how our data was transmitted and recorded in the app and whether it could be shared with healthcare providers.
  • Portability: We noted its size, weight, and travel options, such as whether it comes with a storage case or lanyard for easy carrying.

The Experts

We consulted with a team of experts for their professional opinions to provide the most accurate information on using and purchasing a pulse oximeter.

  • Thomas Yadegar, M.D., medical director of the intensive care unit at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center
  • Luis Javier Peña-Hernández, MD, a lung health specialist at the Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Disorders Institute of South Florida
  • David Portugal, M.D., Cardiologist at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital.

Ease of Use

Any oximeter you choose should be easy to use. You may not have the time or ability to fiddle with devices that require a lot of setup or constant adjustments on your finger. The oximeter should also be easy to read and interpret, so you’re not left scratching your head over your results. You should also consider whether more than one person will need to use the oximeter and whether you need the device to store or record information for one person. You don’t have to opt for a super high-tech option, but your pulse oximeter should be of good enough quality to reliably provide the results you need.

Fit

Your pulse oximeter should fit well on your finger to increase the likelihood of accurate results. This means it should be able to open wide enough to fit your finger, close snugly (but not too tightly), and you should be able to leave it in place for as long as needed to get a reading. If your oximeter can’t accommodate your finger size, falls off while you’re waiting for a reading, or is otherwise uncomfortable while you’re using it, it might not be the right fit for you.

Accuracy

Accuracy is the most important feature when choosing a pulse oximeter, so features highlighting whether light transmission is sufficient may be a helpful indicator of better accuracy. Less expensive pulse oximeters do not necessarily correlate to less accuracy—so you should look for a device that’s accurate and easy to use, above all else.

While you won’t usually be able to check your oximeter’s readings against a professional’s, you can test your device's accuracy and reading consistency in other ways. Try taking a reading, waiting one minute, and then taking another with the same finger (without moving around between readings). If the reading is the same or close to it, then that indicates that the oximeter gives you fairly consistent readings each time you use it.

Also, according to Dr. Portugal, pulse oximeters are quite accurate for measuring heart rate. He adds that the only issue that may come up is if you have anirregular heartbeator premature heartbeat. Sometimes, that can temporarily throw off the monitor and make it hard to obtain an accurate pulse rate on the spot.

Data display

It is crucial for you to select a device that features a large and clear display, especially if you have any visual impairment. The bigger and brighter the display, the easier it will be for you to read. Additionally, you may want to consider a device that helps you understand how to interpret your readings. However, a healthcare professional can assist you with this, especially if you have any pre-existing health conditions that might impact your readings.

At sea level, for an average person with no other health conditions, an oxygen saturation below 95% is likely abnormal, says cardiologist David Portugal, M.D., of Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital. A saturation below 90% would be considered significantly abnormal and could be a sign of a heart or lung condition.

If app connectivity is important for your oximeter, make sure to choose a device that can connect to either its designated app or the app of your choice. Many oximeters do not have this capability. Additionally, ensure that the app will display and record the information you desire, including blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygenation.

Portability

At-home oximeters are usually small and portable, so you can easily carry them around in your pocket or purse. However, it's important to consider where you'll need to use it. You may also want to think about whether you prefer a carrying case or lanyard to keep track of your device, and make sure it's not too big or heavy to transport easily.

Type

According to Dr. Portugal, pulse oximeters are the same in basic terms: They use light waves to measure the oxygen concentration in the hemoglobin in red blood cells.The only difference, he says, is how it’s attached to the body: The most standard pulse oximeter you will likely find online or at the pharmacy is a clip-on device, whereas, in the hospital, disposable, adhesive-type oximeters are more common. If you want to streamline your devices, you may also be able to purchase a smartwatch that can serve as a pulse oximeter, Dr. Portugal notes, so you don’t need to keep track of multiple devices.

Who We Are

Sarah Bradley has been a freelance writer since 2017, tackling health commerce articles, product reviews, and shopping guides on everything from dry skin moisturizers and wart removers to menstrual cups and toothbrushes for braces. She personally tests products, so she knows what makes a good product stand out from a great one (and really, really wants to tell you about it).

Shortness of Breath? A Pulse Oximeter Might Help You Check Oxygen Levels (2024)
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