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Using a pulse oximeter

pulse oximeter

Your pulse oximeter for heart rate and blood oxygen level

You can use the BrowseAloud buttons on this website to change the language, the contrast or to hear the page read to you.

This page and diary is your online version of the paper guide your doctor has given you along with a pulse oximeter because you have symptoms of COVID-19.

It explains why it will help you and your doctor monitor and manage your health better.

A pulse oximeter is a small device which helps you to monitor how fast your heart is beating and the level of oxygen in your blood. It fits on to your finger.

Blood oxygen level is the most accurate way of keeping an eye on your progress with COVID-19.

An ideal oxygen level is between 95% and 99%. An ideal heart rate is between 50 and 90 beats per minute (bpm).

The oxygen level may be lower in some people with lung conditions, even when they are well. If you have an existing lung condition, your doctor will let you know what the levels mean for you

How to use a pulse oximeter

Follow these steps to make sure the pulse oximeter gives an accurate reading:

  1. Remove any nail polish or false nails.
  2. Warm your hand if cold.
  3. Make sure you have been resting for at least five minutes before taking your measurement.
  4. Rest your hand on your chest at the level of your heart and hold it still.
  5. Switch the pulse oximeter on and place it on your finger. It works best on your middle or index finger of either hand. It should not be used on your ear.
  6. The reading takes time to steady. Keep the pulse oximeter in place for at least a minute, or longer if the reading keeps changing.
  7. Record the highest result once the reading has not changed for five seconds.
  8. Be careful to identify which reading is your heart rate and which is your oxygen level.

You can also watch a short NHS video which takes you through all these steps on how to use your pulse oximeter. 

Recording your results in your diary and acting on the results

Your first measurement is your baseline – your doctor will record this in the highlighted blue area. Then you take recordings three times a day, at the same time each day – for example in the morning, at midday and in the evening. Take extra measurements if you feel there has been a change in your health. Please also record changes in how you are feeling and your breathing.

Keep track of your temperature if you can. However, as long as your oxygen level and breathing are normal, you do not need to contact the BREATHE service or NHS 111 if you have a temperature or other symptoms, such as cough, muscle aches, tiredness and change in taste or smell. Paracetamol and regular fluids can help with these symptoms, and most people will get better by themselves within two to three weeks.

Click here to download a copy of the diary. Word document.

Please see the NHS website for information on self-isolation or how to access care.

What to do if you experience the following symptoms

When to go to A&E or call 999

Attend your nearest A&E or call 999 immediately if you have one or more of the following and tell the operator you may have coronavirus:

  • You are unable to complete short sentences when at rest due to breathlessness
  • Your breathing suddenly worsens within an hour
  • Your blood oxygen level is 92% or less. Check your blood oxygen level again straight away – if it’s still 92% or below, go to A&E immediately or call 999

OR if these more general signs of illness develop:

  • you are coughing up blood
  • you feel cold and sweaty with pale or blotchy skin
  • you develop a rash that does not fade when you roll a drinking glass over it
  • you collapse or faint
  • you become agitated, confused or very drowsy
  • you have stopped peeing or are peeing much less than usual.

If you have your pulse oximeter, please give the oxygen saturation reading to the 999 operator.


When to call the BREATHE team or NHS 111

Ring the Specialist Respiratory Nurses in the BREATHE Team on 01226 431673 (8:00am – 6.00pm) OR ring 111 as soon as possible if you have one or more of the following and tell the operator you may have coronavirus:

  • You slowly start feeling more unwell or more breathless.
  • You are having difficulty breathing when getting up to go to the toilet or similar.
  • If you use the pulse oximeter, your blood oxygen level is 94% or 93% when sitting or lying down and remains at this level after being rechecked within an hour.
  • You sense that something is wrong (general weakness, severe tiredness, loss of appetite, reduced urine output, unable to care for yourself – simple tasks like washing and dressing or making food).

If your blood oxygen level is usually below 95% but it drops below your normal level, call the BREATHE team or 111 for advice. Have your diary readings available.

Family and friends checking you are safe

It is important that someone checks on you regularly. If you are isolating from other people in the same house as you, talking on your phone or through a doorway could be better than sending text messages. It will help them hear if you are becoming more breathless or unwell. If you live alone, you should arrange to contact someone regularly. Ask them to ring you if you don’t contact them as planned and ask them to seek help if you don’t answer.

If you are still unwell after two weeks, please contact your GP.

Reminders to take your readings and to record them in your diary

You can choose to receive regular text message reminders asking you to take your readings and record them in your diary. The text messages will be sent on days 2, 5, 7,10 and 12.

If you do not have a mobile telephone then you can choose to receive reminder telephone calls.

Returning the pulse oximeter

You are likely to have the device for 14 days from the onset of your illness. We do see some patients who feel unwell again after the first week of symptoms, so please keep using the device until the full 14 days have passed. After 14 days we will contact you by telephone to discuss next steps.

We currently have a small number of devices available to loan out. When you no longer need it, please return it to the drop off point outside Oaks Park Primary Care Centre, Thornton Road, Barnsley, S70 3NE. It is important that it is returned to us. If you are shielding, please ask someone to do this for you. We can arrange for somebody to pick up the pulse oximeter from your home if a family member or friend is unable to help.

You should return it in the bag provided so that it can be safely cleaned and given to other patients.

Please return the diary with the pulse oximeter so we save your readings on your health record.

Contact Numbers

Practical help using the device: If you have any questions about how to use the pulse oximeter you can call the Pulse Oximeter team on 01226 242471 (9am – 5pm)

Medical help: If you need medical help, please use the checklist above and follow the instruction to ring NHS 111 or call the BREATHE team on 01226 431673 (8:00am – 6.00pm). Or if you need urgent help call 999 or go to A&E immediately.