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Oxygen saturation - what is it? Norms, testing, symptoms of low saturation

Saturation is one of the most important vital signs and its correct state is crucial for health.

Nina Wawryszuk - AuthorAuthorNina Wawryszuk
Nina Wawryszuk - Author
AuthorNina Wawryszuk
Natu.Care Editor

Nina Wawryszuk specialises in sports supplementation, strength training and psychosomatics. On a daily basis, in addition to writing articles for Natu.Care, as a personal trainer she helps athletes improve their performance through training, diet and supplementation.

Learn more about our editorial process

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Witold Tomaszewski - Reviewed byReviewed byWitold Tomaszewski
Verified by an expert
Witold Tomaszewski - Reviewed by
Reviewed byWitold Tomaszewski
Doctor of Medicine

Doctor of Medicine, food and pharmaceutical law expert and experienced medical professional.

Learn more about our editorial process

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Matthew Podlecki - Fact-checkingFact-checkingMatthew Podlecki
Matthew Podlecki - Fact-checking
Fact-checkingMatthew Podlecki
Natu.Care Editor

At Natu.Care, she educates about healthy lifestyles and debunks dangerous myths, contrasting them with the results of the latest scientific research. Additionally, she is interested in new technologies and their impact on health and everyday life.

Learn more about our editorial process

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Oxygen saturation - what is it? Norms, testing, symptoms of low saturation
29 April, 2024
13 min
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Media about us:

Saturation determines the level of oxygen saturation in the blood, which is crucial for the proper functioning of our body.

Saturation is falling! - we have heard this phrase in more than one medical series. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, this term has been used more frequently, not only among the series' doctors, but also by our friends and loved ones. 

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From this article you will learn: 

  • What is carbonation? 
  • .
  • What are its standards?
  • .
  • What should cause you concern?
  • .
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Are you in need of help?
. Make an appointment
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See also articles on health:

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Blood saturation - what is it?

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Blood saturation is one of the most importantand vital parameters, along with blood pressure, respiratory rate and body temperature. Saturation determines the oxygen saturation of the blood , i.e. it indicates whether our body is adequately oxygenated.

Hemoglobin is responsible for transporting oxygen  to the various tissues and organs in the body. A blood saturation test indicates how much haemoglobin is currently connected to oxygen.

Saturation status is given as a percentage and is designated by the symbol SpO2 or SaO2. A saturation of 98% means that the body is functioning properly and 98% of the haemoglobin is delivering  oxygen to the body's cells at any given time.

Why is saturation measured?

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I asked Dr Witold Tomaszewski, M.D., what the purpose of testing saturation status is. 

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As he explains, the purpose of the test is to check whether the blood is well oxygenated. Doctors can use pulse oximeters to monitor the health of people with ailments that affect the oxygen content of the blood, such as:

  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,
  • .
  • asthma,
  • .
  • pneumonia,
  • pneumonia,
  • pneumonia
  • pulmonary neoplasms,
  • pneumonia,
  • anemia,
  • pneumonia,
  • pneumonia
  • anemia,
  • .
  • heart attack or heart failure,
  • infarction or heart failure
  • congenital heart disease,
  • .

According to Dr. Tomaszewski, saturation testing is indicated to:

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  • monitor oxygen content during or after surgical procedures requiring sedation (e.g. anaesthesia),
  • .
  • diagnose sleep apnoea,
  • .
  • assess whether there is a need for mechanical ventilation with a ventilator,
  • .
  • determine whether supplementary oxygen therapy is needed,
  • .
  • assess the person's ability to tolerate increased physical activity,
  • .

Hypoxaemia and hypoxia

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When discussing the topic of desaturation, the terms hypoxaemia and hypoxia often come up and are associated with hypoxia. Are they the same and can they be used interchangeably? No.

  • Hypoxaemia (colloquially hypoxia) refers to a reduced oxygenand in arterial blood, which severely disrupts metabolic processes in the body's tissues.
  • Hypoxia refers to a chronic deficiency of oxygenand in the tissues relative to the demand, leading to hypoxia in the body.

In brief

Hypoxaemia is a reduction in the concentration of oxygen in the blood, while hypoxia is the consequence of long-lasting hypoxaemia.

How to measure saturation

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Saturation testing can be performed in a medical facility, but also conveniently in our own home. The test uses pulsoximeters.

Pulse oximeter - what is it?

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A pulse oximeter is an electronic device that is used to perform a non-invasive measurement of blood saturation (i.e. oxygen saturation). It measures the extent to which red blood cells absorb radiation at different wavelengths to assess whether the blood is transporting oxygen or is deprived of it. The pulse oximeter indicates whether our body is well oxygenated. 
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PhD.

Witold Tomaszewski Doctor of Medical Sciences

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You can read more about pulse oximeters in the article: Pulse oximeter - standards, results, price, which one to choose? Ranking

Types of pulse oximeters

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There are 3 types of pulse oximeters:

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  • Stationary - large devices used in hospitals, medical facilities and nursing homes. 
  • Fingerstick (in the form of a clamp) - pocket-sized, portable devices. Measurement is taken by putting it on the finger of the hand.
  • Wristband - a gadget inserted into smartwatches, watches and sports bands. It should be considered an interesting addition to the watch, not the main source of saturation measurement.

The pulse oximeter can measure saturation from: the fingers of the hand or foot, the auricle, the wing of the nose, in newborns - from the foot.

How does the saturation measurement work? Instructions

Learn how to take a pulse oximeter measurement correctly with a forehead pulse oximeter:

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  • Ahead of taking the measurement, avoid intense physical activity.
  • .
  • Take the measurement in a darkened room - strong light may affect the measurement.
  • .
  • Remove bandages, jewellery and nail polish from your finger. Your hand should be warm and relaxed.
  • .
  • Sit up straight in a place that is comfortable for you.
  • .
  • Place your hand below heart level - e.g. on the back of a chair.
  • .
  • Place the pulse oximeter on the index finger of your hand and hold it for as long as the manufacturer recommends.
  • .
  • Read the result and remove the device at the end of the test.
  • .
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If you are testing the saturation on the big toe (finger) - remember to keep the finger warm. Cold can distort the result of the saturation level.
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dr. n..

Witold Tomaszewskidoctor of medical sciences

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Saturation - norm in adults and children

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The pulse oximeter shows values from 1% to 100%. In healthy individuals, the measurement result should be at 95% or higherand. Saturation below this value may indicate inadequate tissue oxygenation. 

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Do you need help?
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Saturation results - how to read?

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Correct saturation values cannot provide an overall assessment of a patient's clinical condition. When making a diagnosis, the doctor also takes into account other factors, such as the patient's medical history, other vital signs, and current health status.
MD.

Witold Tomaszewskidoctor of medical sciences

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What influences the saturation result?

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When performing a saturation test with a napalcim pulse oximeter, it is important to be aware of factors that can falsify the result.

The reliability of the saturation result may be affected byand: nail disease and trauma, varnished or hybrid nails, finger tattoos, performing the test immediately after exercise, cold hands, intense ambient light.

Saturation versus skin colour

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The colour of our skin can also affect the saturation result. A reportand from 2020 compared the accuracy of pulse oximetry tests and blood gas measurements in detecting hypoxaemia in people with white and black skin colour.

The study found that among black patients, there were up to three times as many cases in which pulse oximetry tests failed to detect latent hypoxaemia, whereas blood gas measurements did.

Saturation critical value

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Saturation below 70% is life-threatening. Prolonged low blood oxygenation levels can lead to severe damage to the brain, heart and eventually even death. 
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dr. n.h..

Witold Tomaszewskidoctor of medical sciences

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Saturation versus COVID-19

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Many patients with COVID-19 have low blood oxygen concentrations, even if they feel well. Low saturation can be an early warning sign that medical attention is needed. The oxygen saturation level for COVID-19 patients currently considered to be the target is 92-96%and.

Saturation levels in smokers

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Smoking can affect the accuracy of pulse oximetry. The result of saturation measurement in smokersand can be low or falsely high. This is affected by hypercapnia, the abnormal concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood caused by compulsive smoking. With hypercapnia, the pulse oximeter has difficulty distinguishing blood oxygen from carbon monoxide.

Indications for saturation testing

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Saturation level testing in hospitals is performed when there is a risk of ischemiaandof the body. Such situations are:

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  • general anaesthesia (narcosis),
  • .
  • planned or unplanned surgery,
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  • childbirth or antenatal condition,
  • .
  • severe condition of the patient,
  • .
  • pharmacological coma,
  • surgical conditions
  • post-operative conditions,
  • .
  • endoscopic examination of the gastrointestinal tract (gastroscopy), 
  • .
  • cardiac catheterisation,
  • .
  • respiratory failure,
  • .
  • bronchoscopy procedure,
  • .
  • oxygen therapy,
  • .

Dr. Witold Tomaszewski, M.D., adds that regular testing of saturation status with a pulse oximeter using a napalcimeter should be performed by:

  • asthmatics,
  • .
  • people with COVID-19 infection or other respiratory stress infection (e.g. bronchitis),
  • .
  • performance athletes,
  • .
  • Alpine climbers,
  • .
  • pilots,
  • .
  • parachute jumpers,
  • .

Causes of low saturation

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Low blood oxygenation in the body can causeand:

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  • heart disease,
  • .
  • asthma,
  • .
  • anemia,
  • .
  • COVID-19,
  • .
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,
  • .
  • interstitial lung disease,
  • pneumoconiosis,
  • pneumoconiosis,
  • pneumonia
  • emphysema,
  • .
  • pneumonia,
  • pulmonary inflammation,
  • pneumonia
  • pulmonary fibrosis, i.e. scarring and damage to the lungs,
  • .
  • arterial obstruction in the lungs,
  • .
  • excess fluid in the lungs,
  • .
  • presence of air or gas in the chest that causes the lungs to collapse,
  • .
  • sleep apnoea,
  • .
  • high altitude (above 1500 m above sea level,and),
  • .
  • some groups of medications, including some painkillers (especially opioids ).

Symptoms of low saturation

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Don't just rely on the saturation test result on the device. Symptoms of low saturationand that should worry us are:

  • headache,
  • .
  • dizziness,
  • .
  • excessive drowsiness,
  • .
  • spiration,
  • .
  • bad mood,
  • .
  • coughing or wheezing,
  • .
  • fast heartbeat,
  • .
  • feeling of confusion or disorientation,
  • .
  • blue colouring of the skin, lips or fingernails (cyanosisand),
  • .
  • slow pulse,
  • .
  • hidrosis,
  • .

Effects of low saturation

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Prolonged, low blood oxygen levels can lead to:

  • high blood pressure,
  • .
  • severe organ damage and failure,
  • .
  • death,
  • .
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Important

If you have taken a pulse oximeter test and it has not indicated a saturation below 95% but you have the above symptoms - call emergency services immediately.

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How to treat low saturation

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Low saturation levels should be treated immediately to prevent damage to key organs. If you have a low saturation level, call the emergency department straight away. There, a doctor - with the right medical equipment at their disposal - will make a diagnosis and provide expert help, including pharmacological treatment.

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Are you in need of help?
. Make an appointment
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Home remedies to increase saturation

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Care for adequate oxygenation of your body on a daily basis. Share these ways with a loved one! 

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  • Learn to breathe with your diaphragm. Breathe in through your nose and use the movement of your diaphragm. Practise conscious breathing several times a day.
  • .
  • If you smoke cigarettes, give up the habit. Not sure how to start? Check out the Ministry of Health guideand.
  • .
  • Drink about 2.5 litres of liquids per day, especially water. Adequate hydration ensures oxygenation of the cells and proper functioning of the body. Correct concentrations of magnesium, sodium, potassium and calcium are crucial for the body's water and electrolyte balance.
  • Find your favourite physical activity and exercise regularly for health. Walking, team sports, cycling, swimming, tennis - what do you like best?
  • .
  • Pay attention to your diet. Your diet should be rich in vitamins, mineralsomega acids and antioxidants. Limit processed foods and saltand.
  • .

Not sure how to compose your diet? Take a look at our Diet tab for inspiration - we've put it together with our team of nutritionists.

You may be interested in:

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The next time you hear in a TV series: Saturation is dropping! - you'll know what's going on. Sometimes you'll even take note of the ridiculous behaviour of the fictional doctors who are saving the patient.

If you have questions about saturation - leave them in the comments. You can also share your thoughts on the behaviour of doctors in medical series. This seems like an interesting topic for another article - can you help me with this one?"

Summary

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  • Saturation is one of the most important vital signs and indicates the level of oxygen saturation in the blood. 
  • Pulse oximeters are used to test blood saturation. 
  • .
  • The normal saturation for healthy people is at least 95%. 
  • .
  • Critical saturation is below 70% and risks organ damage and, consequently, death. 
  • .
  • You can take care of the correct oxygenation of the body on a daily basis - proper breathing, diet physical activity (for details, see the paragraph on home remedies to improve saturation).

FAQ

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. What should be the correct oxygen saturation and heart rate?.

Blood oxygen saturation is the percentage of the amount of haemoglobin (a protein molecule containing iron) that is filled with oxygen relative to the total amount of haemoglobin in the blood.

The normal blood oxygen saturation should be around 95-100%. Lower values may suggest hypoxia and result in symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness or headaches.

The following is an example of this.

. I have or have had COVID-19. At what saturation should I go to hospital?.

If you have or have had COVID-19 and are concerned about your saturation, you should consult your doctor. The alarming level of saturation at which you should contact your doctor or go to hospital - especially for coronavirus - is 92% or below.

Remember that simply measuring your saturation with a pulse oximeter is not enough to diagnose your condition. Other factors such as age, gender, co-morbidities or blood tests also need to be taken into account. If you have any concerns or doubts about your health, consult your doctor.

. What does 92% saturation mean?.

Saturation refers to the level of oxygen in the body. If you get a result of 92% when measured with a pulse oximeter, it means that your blood contains 92% of the maximum amount of oxygen it can transport.

Such low saturation levels may suggest hypoxia, which can be caused by respiratory infections, coronavirus, heart failure, asthma, carbon monoxide poisoning or altitude sickness, among others.

With a saturation of 92%, you may experience fatigue and breathlessness - oxygen may need to be administered in hospital.

. When is the saturation too low?.

Saturation below 90% is considered low, although in people with lung or heart disease, levels as low as 95% are considered dangerous. It is a condition in which the body does not receive enough oxygen, which can lead to serious health problems.

Symptoms that can accompany low oxygen saturation levels include:

  • difficulty breathing,
  • .
  • fast heartbeat,
  • .
  • fatigue,
  • .
  • dizziness,
  • .
  • difficulty concentrating,
  • .

If you notice these symptoms, consult your doctor or go to the emergency department where you will get help.

. What is the critical saturation level?.

Critical saturation level depends on a number of factors such as age, health status, physical activity or concomitant illnesses.

If saturation levels fall below 92-90%, this can cause hypoxia, which in turn can lead to serious health problems. For people with respiratory conditions such as COPD, asthma or sleep apnoea, the critical saturation level can be as high as 94-95%.

The following are some of the most common conditions.

. What are the symptoms of hypoxia?.

Hypoxia is a condition in which tissues and organs do not receive enough oxygen. Symptoms of hypoxia can vary depending on the degree of hypoxia, as well as the duration of the hypoxia.

Symptoms of hypoxia include:

  • breathing problems,
  • .
  • fatigue and weakness,
  • .
  • dizziness and headaches,
  • .
  • pigmentation of the skin,
  • painfulness.
  • salivation around the mouth and fingers,
  • .
  • nausea,
  • .
  • vomiting,
  • .
  • anxiety,
  • .
  • problems with motor coordination,
  • .

If you suspect hypoxia, contact your doctor or seek medical attention in the ED.

. Will the pulse oximeter detect pneumonia?.

A pulse oximeter is a device that measures blood oxygen saturation and pulse levels. It cannot detect pneumonia directly, but it can help in the early discovery of symptoms of hypoxia, which is a common symptom of pneumonia. Additionally, a decrease in oxygen saturation levels may suggest lung inflammation, although the two conditions are not necessarily related.

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Sources

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. See all.

Drummond, G. B., & Lafferty, B. (2010). Oxygen saturation decreases acutely when opioids are given during anaesthesia. British Journal of Anaesthesia, 104(5), 661-663. https://doi.org/10.1093/bja/aeq076

Hafen, B. B., & Sharma, S. (2022). Oxygen Saturation. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK525974/

Mathew, T. M., & Sharma, S. (2022). High Altitude Oxygenation. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539701/

Mejía, F., Medina, C., Cornejo, E., Morello, E., Vásquez, S., Alave, J., Schwalb, A., & Málaga, G. (2020). Oxygen saturation as a predictor of mortality in hospitalized adult patients with COVID-19 in a public hospital in Lima, Peru. PloS One, 15(12), e0244171. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0244171

Oxygenation and Ventilation for Adults. (n.d.). COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://www.covid19treatmentguidelines.nih.gov/management/critical-care-for-adults/oxygenation-and-ventilation-for-adults/

Poorzargar, K., Pham, C., Ariaratnam, J., Lee, K., Parotto, M., Englesakis, M., Chung, F., & Nagappa, M. (2022). Accuracy of pulse oximeters in measuring oxygen saturation in patients with poor peripheral perfusion: A systematic review. Journal of Clinical Monitoring and Computing, 36(4), 961-973. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10877-021-00797-8

Sjoding, M. W., Dickson, R. P., Iwashyna, T. J., Gay, S. E., & Valley, T. S. (2020). Racial Bias in Pulse Oximetry Measurement. New England Journal of Medicine, 383(25), 2477-2478. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMc2029240

Why stop smoking? | Patient. (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://pacjent.gov.pl/aktualnosc/dlaczego-warto-rzucic-palenie

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Meet the team
Nina Wawryszuk - Author

Natu.Care Editor

Nina Wawryszuk specialises in sports supplementation, strength training and psychosomatics. On a daily basis, in addition to writing articles for Natu.Care, as a personal trainer she helps athletes improve their performance through training, diet and supplementation.

Witold Tomaszewski - Reviewed by

Doctor of Medicine

Verified by an expert

Doctor of Medicine, food and pharmaceutical law expert and experienced medical professional.

Matthew Podlecki - Fact-checking

Natu.Care Editor

At Natu.Care, she educates about healthy lifestyles and debunks dangerous myths, contrasting them with the results of the latest scientific research. Additionally, she is interested in new technologies and their impact on health and everyday life.

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