Authors: Luks AM, Swenson ER

PMID: 32521167 PMCID: PMC7462317 DOI: 10.1513/AnnalsATS.202005-418FR


During the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, reports in social media and the lay press indicate that a subset of patients are presenting with severe hypoxemia in the absence of dyspnea, a problem unofficially referred to as “silent hypoxemia.” To decrease the risk of complications in such patients, one proposed solution has been to have those diagnosed with COVID-19 but not sick enough to warrant admission monitor their arterial oxygenation by pulse oximetry at home and present for care when they show evidence of hypoxemia. Though the ease of use and low cost of pulse oximetry makes this an attractive option for identifying problems at an early stage, there are important considerations with pulse oximetry about which patients and providers may not be aware that can interfere with successful implementation of such monitoring programs. Only a few independent studies have examined the performance of pocket oximeters and smart phone-based systems, but the limited available data raise questions about their accuracy, particularly as saturation falls below 90%. There are also multiple sources of error in pulse oximetry that must be accounted for, including rapid fluctuations in measurements when the arterial oxygen pressure/tension falls on the steep portion of the dissociation curve, data acquisition problems when pulsatile blood flow is diminished, accuracy in the setting of severe hypoxemia, dyshemoglobinemias, and other problems. Recognition of these issues and careful counseling of patients about the proper means for measuring their oxygen saturation and when to seek assistance can help ensure successful implementation of needed monitoring programs.

Keywords: COVID-19; hypoxemia; oxygen saturation; pulse oximetry.

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