Potential Problems with Pulse Oximeters

Pulse oximeters may be less accurate in people with dark skin, new report says

(RxWiki News) A tool used to estimate levels of oxygen in the blood may not be accurate for everyone, according to a new report.

Pulse oximeters may not produce accurate results for people who have dark skin pigmentation, according to this report.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, pulse oximeters have seen a huge increase in use. These devices measure blood oxygen levels, an important metric when monitoring someone with COVID-19.

Based on the finding of this new report that factors like darker skin could affect results, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended that anyone who is monitoring their blood oxygen levels at home report all symptoms they are experiencing to their health care providers. Relying on the readings from a pulse oximeter alone may not provide the full picture for some patients.

This report, which studied more than 10,000 patients at 78 hospitals, compared pulse oximeter readings with more accurate measures of arterial blood gas. Black patients were three times more likely than white patients to have low levels of oxygen in the blood that were not detected by a pulse oximeter.

Other factors that appeared to affect the accuracy of these devices included blood circulation, skin temperature, skin thickness, current tobacco use and fingernail polish, the FDA noted.

The FDA said it is reviewing research on this issue. To address it, the agency said it may make changes to the guidance that comes with prescription and/or over-the-counter pulse oximeters.

If you are concerned about the accuracy of your pulse oximeter reading or any symptom you are experiencing, talk to your health care provider. And if you have questions about how to properly use a pulse oximeter, ask your community pharmacist or doctor.

The report about pulse oximeter accuracy was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Grants from the National Institutes of Health and Department of Veterans Affairs funded this research.

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Review Date: 
March 8, 2021
Last Updated:
March 15, 2021