How to Read Pulse Oximeter? For Beginners

How to read Pulse Oximeter?

If you’re new to using a pulse oximeter, you’re probably wondering – what in the world is this little device? Let me explain!

In simple terms, a pulse oximeter is a non-invasive medical device about the size of a small clamp or clothes pin that measures the oxygen saturation in your blood.

It shines a light through your fingertip or earlobe to monitor how oxygenated your red blood cells are.

Oxygen plays a huge role in allowing our bodies’ tissues and organs to function properly.

When oxygen levels get too low, a dangerous condition called hypoxemia can occur.

Hypoxemia restricts oxygen flow to vital organs and can lead to organ damage, seizures, loss of consciousness, and even death in severe cases. Scary stuff!

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One of the coolest things about it is that it doesn’t just clip onto your finger like your average oximeter.

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That’s where pulse oximeters save the day.

They allow you to easily keep an eye on your blood oxygen levels from the comfort of your home.

Think of your trusty little pulse oximeter as your own personal hypoxemia alert system.

The first pulse oximeters came onto the medical scene in the 1970s and were called “ear oximeters” since they were only used on earlobes then.

I remember using those clunky devices in nursing school!

It wasn’t until the 1980s that fingertip models were introduced and the name pulse oximeter finally emerged.

While hospital grade pulse oximeters measure both oxygen saturation (SpO2) and pulse rate, most consumer models just display SpO2.

Nowadays, we have pulse oximeters that connect to smart phones and even fit on your wrist like a watch! But their main purpose remains the same – to let you monitor that vital oxygen saturation percentage with a simple beam of light.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty amazing medical technology!

Using a Pulse Oximeter is Simple as 1-2-3!

Step Description
1 Wash and dry your hands thoroughly before using the pulse oximeter. Clean hands ensure accurate readings.
2 Turn on the pulse oximeter and place it on your fingertip or earlobe. Ensure a snug fit.
3 Relax your hand and remain still for 5-10 seconds while the device takes readings. Minimize movement for accuracy.
4 The display will show your oxygen saturation percentage (SpO2) and pulse rate (bpm).
5 Interpret the results: SpO2 between 95-100% is normal. Below 90% may indicate low oxygen levels. Compare pulse rate to the normal range of 60-100 bpm.
6 Monitor readings over time. Sudden or significant drops in SpO2 may warrant medical attention.
7 If you suspect inaccurate readings, address factors like poor circulation, movement, or incorrect sensor placement.
8 Practice proper maintenance: clean the device after each use, replace batteries as needed, and store it in a cool, dry place.


One of my favorite things about pulse oximeters is how incredibly easy they are to use.

The entire process takes less than 15 seconds and is straightforward enough for kids to handle (with adult supervision of course!).

Here’s a quick step-by-step overview on how to use a pulse oximeter:

  1. Wash and thoroughly dry your hands before using your device. Clean hands lead to better readings.
  2. Turn on your pulse oximeter (usually just involves pressing a button). Place it on your finger making sure to cover the tip. Most are made for fingertips but earlobes work too.
  3. Relax your hand and sit very still for 5-10 seconds allowing the device to work its magic! Movement can impact the accuracy.

That’s it! In just seconds your oxygen saturation percentage and pulse rate will display on the screen. It’s 100% painless and super quick.

Over the years, I’ve learned a few extra pulse oximeter tips and tricks:

  • Take slow deep breaths if you’re having trouble getting a reading to increase blood flow to the finger.
  • Make sure to exfoliate and moisturize your hands – dry cracked skin definitely affects readings.
  • Don’t panic over one slightly low reading in the 90s – SpO2 normal range is considered 95-100%.
  • Stick to reliable sites like fingertips or earlobes for best results. Toes just don’t provide accurate data!
  • Change those batteries frequently to avoid abrupt device shut downs mid-reading.
  • For kids’ readings, make it fun by letting them decorate the oximeter with stickers or superhero themes.

See, using a pulse oximeter really couldn’t be much easier. Give it a try for yourself and let me know if you have any other questions!

Decode Your Pulse Oximeter Readings


Reading Normal Range What it Means
Oxygen Saturation (SpO2) 95-100% Normal blood oxygen levels
90-94% Potential hypoxemia issues
Below 90% Low oxygen levels, seek medical attention
Pulse Rate 60-100 bpm Normal resting heart rate
Below 60 bpm Bradycardia – consult a doctor
Above 100 bpm Tachycardia – seek medical evaluation


Okay, you’ve got your pulse oximeter in place and your results are flashing on that little display. But what do those numbers actually mean? Let’s break down how to interpret your device’s readings:

For oxygen saturation (SpO2), a healthy reading for most people falls between 95-100%. Below 90% is considered low and indicates potential hypoxemia issues.

If your levels drop into the high 80s, it’s time to call your doctor for evaluation. And if they fall below 85%, immediate medical attention is recommended.

As for pulse rate, the normal range is 60-100 beats per minute when resting. Bradycardia refers to readings below 60 bpm, while tachycardia is characterized by a pulse over 100 bpm. Both warrant a trip to the doctor.

Here are two sample readout scenarios to illustrate normal versus concerning results:

Normal results: Oxygen saturation – 97% Pulse rate – 72 bpm

*This falls nicely within healthy ranges and is not a cause for concern.

Abnormal results: Oxygen saturation – 88% Pulse rate – 112 bpm

*The dangerously low oxygen level coupled with a high pulse rate could signal an underlying medical issue requiring prompt evaluation.

It’s important not to base concerns solely on one oximeter reading. Look at trends over time – sudden significant drops in your SpO2 can be good indicators that something is amiss. When in doubt, call your doctor!

Watch Out for Erroneous Readings

While pulse oximeters are generally reliable devices, they can occasionally display inaccurate readings. Here are some common factors that can lead to false readings to be aware of:

  • Poor circulation – Cold hands and fingers or conditions like Raynaud’s can restrict blood flow enough to impact results.
  • Excess movement – Too much finger wiggling or arm swinging during testing can skew your numbers.
  • Skin pigments – Very dark skin, bright colored nail polishes, or acrylic nails may prevent light from properly penetrating the fingertip.
  • Offbeat placement – Anywhere other than a reliable spot like a fingertip can inaccurately read (toes just don’t work!).
  • Damaged device – Dropping your oximeter or low batteries could render it unreliable. Always inspect before use.

If you suspect false readings, try warming up your hands thoroughly, removing nail polish, and re-testing on an earlobe. And as always, have your doctor verify any concerns over readings.

Proper Pulse Oximeter Cleaning and Care

Like any piece of health equipment, pulse oximeters require proper cleaning and maintenance to keep them functioning their best. Here are my top tips for caring for your device:

  • Gently wipe down the exterior with a soft dry cloth after each use to remove dirt, oil, and skin cells.
  • Use manufacturer approved disinfectants for a deeper clean when needed. Many recommend alcohol wipes.
  • Avoid liquid and never fully submerge your device! Simply wiping the exterior is sufficient.
  • Store your pulse oximeter in a cool, dry location away from direct sunlight and humidity.
  • Replace batteries frequently to prevent abrupt device shut downs mid-reading.
  • Consider a protective carrying case if traveling with your oximeter.
  • Keep out of reach of pets and young children to prevent damage.

With good pulse oximeter hygiene and care, your device can provide accurate reliable readings for years. Be sure to inspect for any damage before each use. Let me know if you have any other oximeter cleaning questions!

Special Considerations for Kids’ Readings

While pulse oximeters work very similarly on children and adults, there are a few key differences to keep in mind when monitoring youngsters:

  • Age matters – Normal oxygen saturation ranges differ based on a child’s age due to changes in respiration. Preemies and newborns range 90-95%, infants 95-100%, older kids above 97%.
  • Higher heart rates – Up to 180 bpm can be normal for children thanks to their smaller size and faster metabolisms.
  • More wiggles – Kids are prone to excessive movement which can impact accuracy. Be patient and try repositioning or using earlobes.
  • Sensor size – Ensure the device properly fits tiny fingers and earlobes by selecting pediatric specific models.
  • Make it fun – Stickers, songs, and games can help occupy squirmy children during readings. Always supervise use.

The key is watching for significant dips from your child’s normal range. When in doubt, call the pediatrician. Kids’ readings can vary but prompt evaluation for major SpO2 drops is always recommended.

Using Your Pulse Oximeter for Exercise

In addition to medical use, pulse oximeters have also become quite popular among fitness enthusiasts and athletes. But it’s important to know that oxygen saturation works a bit differently during physical exertion. Here are some key points:

  • Readings can dip more – Even healthy athletes can see dips into the low 90s during intense exercise as the body works harder. This is often normal.
  • Look for patterns – Note if dips happen at the same heart rate or exercise intensity to identify optimal workout zones.
  • Adjust to altitude – Higher elevations naturally lower oxygen saturation. Give your body time to acclimatize if training at altitude.
  • Know your baseline – Take resting readings to determine your normal saturation and compare to exercise numbers.
  • Don’t overdo it – If you feel dizzy or lightheaded, take a break. Readings below 85% warrant prompt medical evaluation.

The key is understanding how your body responds to exercise and leveraging the oximeter data to maximize training. But as always, consult your doctor about any concerns over your readings.

Choosing the Best Pulse Oximeter

With countless pulse oximeter models ranging from $20 to $200, how do you pick the right one? Here are the key factors I recommend considering:

  • Reliability – Hospital grade devices tend to be more accurate than consumer models. Verify FDA clearance.
  • Easy-to-read display – Look for bright large digits and a display that includes SpO2, pulse rate, and waveform.
  • Alarms – Audible alarms that alert you if oxygen levels dip below healthy thresholds.
  • Portability – Compact, lightweight units under 3 ounces are ideal for on-the-go monitoring.
  • Battery life – Rechargeable batteries or 20+ hour life for frequent use.
  • Durability – Opt for sturdy models with protective casing that can handle drops.
  • Warranty – A long 1+ year warranty or lifetime guarantee provides peace of mind.
  • Pediatric use – Ensure safe and properly sized devices if monitoring children.

By keeping these key factors in mind, you can select the pulse oximeter that best fits your needs and budget.

And as always, run any concerns by your trusted doctor.

Let me know if you have any other pulse oximeter questions! Now you’re ready to start monitoring those oxygen levels like a pro.


What is a pulse oximeter?

A pulse oximeter is a small medical device that measures your blood oxygen saturation level (SpO2). It shines light through your fingertip or earlobe to monitor the oxygen levels in your red blood cells.

How does a pulse oximeter work?

Pulse oximeters work by passing light waves through your fingertip or earlobe. The device compares the amount of red light absorbed to the amount of infrared light absorbed to determine your oxygen saturation percentage.

The more oxygen in your blood, the more infrared light will be absorbed compared to red light.

Is a pulse oximeter accurate?

Pulse oximeters provide fairly accurate blood oxygen saturation readings when used properly on healthy individuals.

However, certain factors like poor circulation, skin pigments, and excess movement can impact accuracy. Hospital grade models also tend to be more precise than consumer oximeters.

What is a normal oxygen level reading?

Most healthy individuals have oxygen saturation levels between 95-100%. Readings below 90% are considered low and warrant medical evaluation.

Normal pulse rates while resting range from 60-100 beats per minute.

When should I use a pulse oximeter?

You can use a pulse oximeter any time you want to check your blood oxygen levels.

They are commonly used to monitor health conditions affecting oxygen, adjust exercise intensity, evaluate recovery, and check how the body is responding to altitude. Always consult your doctor first.

How often can I take pulse oximeter readings?

You can safely take pulse oximeter readings as often as needed, even multiple times per hour if required medically.

However, doctors recommend minimizing use to only when necessary since constantly checking oxygen levels when healthy can lead to anxiety over normal fluctuations.

How do I clean and store my pulse oximeter?

Gently wipe down your pulse oximeter with a dry soft cloth after each use. Clean with manufacturer approved disinfectants when needed.

Avoid liquid and never fully submerge the device. Store your pulse oximeter in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and humidity.

What affects pulse oximeter accuracy?

Factors like poor circulation, skin pigments, excess movement, improper finger placement, damaged devices, and wearing nail polish can impact pulse oximeter accuracy and lead to false readings.

Can I use a pulse oximeter on my child?

You can safely use a pulse oximeter on a child with proper pediatric models sized to fit their small fingers and earlobes.

However, normal oxygen saturation ranges differ by age when interpreting kids’ readings. Young children also often need more movement patience and distraction techniques.

How long do pulse oximeter batteries last?

Battery life varies based on model, but most pulse oximeter batteries last around 20-30 hours of continuous use.

To conserve battery life, turn the pulse oximeter off in between readings rather than leaving it on. Replacing batteries frequently helps avoid abrupt device shut downs.

How do I choose the right pulse oximeter for me?

Choosing the right pulse oximeter depends on factors like reliability, display quality, portability, battery life, and more.

Consider your needs and preferences before making a decision.

Can I use a pulse oximeter while exercising?

Absolutely! Many athletes use pulse oximeters during workouts to monitor oxygen levels.

Keep in mind that readings may dip during intense exercise, but patterns over time are more important than isolated readings.

How often should I replace the batteries in my pulse oximeter?

It’s recommended to replace the batteries in your pulse oximeter as needed, especially if you use it frequently. Regular battery changes prevent sudden shutdowns during readings.

Can I wear a pulse oximeter overnight?

Wearing a pulse oximeter overnight is possible, but it’s essential to choose a comfortable and secure option. Consult with your doctor if you plan on using it for extended periods.

What can cause inaccurate pulse oximeter readings?

Inaccurate readings can be caused by poor circulation, excessive movement, skin pigments, incorrect sensor placement, or device damage. Address these factors for more reliable results.

Are there any health conditions that affect pulse oximeter readings?

Certain conditions like anemia, poor circulation, and cardiovascular issues can impact pulse oximeter readings. It’s important to be aware of these factors when interpreting your results.

Can I use a pulse oximeter on my toes?

Toes are not ideal spots for pulse oximeter readings. Fingertips and earlobes are more reliable options due to better blood flow and easier sensor placement.

What should I do if my pulse oximeter readings are consistently low?

If your pulse oximeter consistently shows low readings, consult your healthcare professional. They can help determine if there’s an underlying health issue that needs attention.

Can I share my pulse oximeter with others?

While it’s possible to share a pulse oximeter, it’s recommended to have individual devices for hygiene reasons.

Sharing could increase the risk of spreading germs or contaminants.