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Why some people are buying pulse oximeters during coronavirus

At first, pulse oximeters flew off the shelves along with toilet paper. Now they’re mostly back in stock. So, should you get one?

For Brad Weaver and his 18-year-old daughter Emma, COVID-19 means they have to be extra vigilant.

“Emma is special needs, non-verbal. She needs assistance walking and so forth and so, she’s a high-risk,” Brad said.

Since Emma can't tell her dad if she's not feeling well, Brad takes her temperature under her arm and he uses a pulse oximeter to monitor Emma's blood oxygen levels.

The pulse oximeter can detect even small changes in the way lungs move oxygen to the rest of the body.

Emergency medicine physician Richard Levitan, MD, has worked with COVID patients and said some have surprised him.

“They had oxygen saturation as low as 50 percent, normal is above 94 percent, and they were talking to us. They were not in shock. They were not lethargic. The thing their body had done, which they didn’t even realize, was in order to accommodate that low oxygen, they were silently breathing faster, and they were doing that for days. Until all of a sudden they developed shortness of breath,” Levitan said.

Doctor Levitan recommends using pulse oximeters if patients are high-risk. He says it could help recognize the early signs of COVID pneumonia. Which gives families, like the Weavers, a little peace of mind.

Although, that's not the recommendation for everyone. For most people, doctors explain, they'll feel short of breath and know they need medical help without needing to know their oxygen levels.

The pulse oximeters are available over the counter at most drug stores ranging in cost from 40 to about 70 dollars. The device is most often used on the index finger, looking for a normal oxygen range of 95-100.