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Home / Tips and Tricks / The Apple Watch Series 6 has a blood oximeter. What it has to do with detecting COVID-19

The Apple Watch Series 6 has a blood oximeter. What it has to do with detecting COVID-19


Apple has built an oxygen meter, called an oximeter, into the Apple Watch Series 6.

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Apples new Apple Watch Series 6 goes all-in on health care, including a new one function to measure the oxygen content of the blood – an important sign that has been helpful in monitoring covid-19, including. Other gadgets that do this, called pulse oximeters, have been around for ages and have become something of a hot topic during the coronavirus pandemic.

The small devices usually squeeze your finger and painlessly check your blood to determine how well your lungs are working, but the Apple Watch Series 6 will build it directly into the smartwatch.

When doctors pointed out that people with the coronavirus often arrive at the hospital with abnormally low oxygen levels, sales of pulse oximeters increased, especially after a new article in The New York Times recommended using them to detect a condition called “silent hypoxia,” which can indicate a coronavirus infection.

But questions and controversy still surround the home use of pulse oximeters, especially when used to monitor COVID-19. It is still not clear whether pulse oximeters can help detect a coronavirus infection or whether their widespread use can help limit the overall spread of COVID-19.

Here’s what you need to know about what pulse oximeters do, how they work, what the results mean and how accurate they can be.

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Pulse oximeters: vital signs, at hand

A pulse oximeter is a small medical device that measures heart rate and oxygen saturation in the blood. It is usually cut to the finger, but it can also be attached to the ear, nose, toe or forehead. On Apple Watches, it is the sensor on the underside of the watch, the part that goes towards the top of your wrist, that takes the measurement.

Some pulse oximeters are battery powered and provide real-time results on a small LED screen on the device itself. Others connect a wire to a separate vital monitor that records even more accurate information about your heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure using other sensors connected to your body.


A pulse oximeter attaches to a finger and uses light to detect the level of oxygen in your blood.

Sean Gallup / Getty Images

How pulse oximeters measure heart rate and oxygen

A pulse oximeter measures your oxygen saturation in the blood and the heart rate by shining a light through your skin and detecting both the color and movement of your blood cells. Oxygen-containing blood cells are light red – deoxygenated cells are dark red.

The pulse oximeter compares the number of light red cells with dark red cells to calculate your percentage of oxygen saturation. For example, a 99% reading means that only 1% of the blood cells in the bloodstream have been depleted of oxygen.

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How pulse oximeters measure your oxygen levels in the blood


Each time your heart beats, it pushes your blood through your body at a fast heart rate (which is why “heart rate” is another word for “heart rate”). A pulse oximeter, which uses light, detects this movement and calculates your heart rate in beats per minute, or BPM, in much the same way that every Apple Watch since the first one does.

What is a healthy oxygen level and heart rate?

According to the Mayo Clinic, a normal pulse oximeter’s oxygen level reading is between 95% and 100%, and anything less than 90% is considered dangerously low or hypoxic. Some doctors have reported that COVID-19 patients were admitted to the hospital with oxygen levels of 50% or less.

A normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 BPM. In general, lower is better, because a slower heart rate is usually an indication of a strong cardiovascular system.

Can a pulse oximeter detect COVID-19?

Not exactly. Although many doctors report that patients with COVID-19 have dangerously low blood oxygen levels, COVID-19 is not the only disease that can cause such a problem. Chronic lung diseases, such as COPD, asthma and other non-COVID-19 lung infections can also result in low oxygen levels.

A low oxygen reading alone is not enough to diagnose COVID-19, but your doctor would like to know about it, especially if you notice that the level drops over time. And if you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, your doctor may want you to monitor your oxygen levels to determine if your condition is getting worse or better.


Although healthcare professionals continue to rely on temperature controls as an indication of a coronavirus infection, many patients with COVID-19 do not have a fever.

Angela Lang / CNET

How accurate are over-the-counter heart rate oximeters?

As with all electronic equipment, not all pulse oximeters are created equal. A 2016 study of cheap pulse oximeters concluded that several cheap units of consumer quality gave very incorrect readings.

Some pulse oximeters have been cleared by the FDA, which means that they must meet FDA standards for accuracy. Note that there is a distinction between “FDA approved” and “FDA approved”, with “cleared” being the less stringent of the two. That said, Class II medical equipment such as pulse oximeters are usually “cleaned” rather than “approved”.

You can look for pulse oximeters on the FDA-approved list by visiting the FDA Premarket announcement website and looking for “pulse oximeter“in Device name field, with or without the name of the manufacturer.

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Although retailers such as Amazon and Walmart still have pulse oximeters available, they are often unmarked and questionable.

Ben Fox Rubin / CNET

How much should I spend on a stand-alone pulse oximeter?

The 2016 study, which found that most cheap pulse oximeters were relatively faulty, defined “low cost” as costing less than $ 50. Pulse oximeters that have been cleared by the FDA tend to range in price from about $ 50 to $ 60 to well into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

Where can I buy a heart rate monitor if I do not get an Apple Watch 6?

Independent Pulse oximeters are sold online – start here. You can also look at stores like Walmart, Amazon and eBay and most drug stores, grocery stores and large stores.

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