Understand your blood oxygen level, what is considered normal and abnormal levels, and learn how to improve your percentages.

What is blood oxygen level?

Your blood oxygen level is a measure of how much oxygen your red blood cells are carrying. The body regulates this level, and most people don’t need to monitor it unless there is a problem, such as shortness of breath or chest pain.

Those with chronic health conditions such as asthma, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may need to monitor their blood oxygen level to help determine if treatments are working, or if they should be adjusted.

How do you measure blood oxygen?

The easiest and most non-invasive method of measuring your blood oxygen is with a pulse oximeter (pulse ox). These devices are inexpensive and readily available, and clip onto the end of a finger or earlobe, sending infrared light into capillaries and measuring how much light is reflected off the gases in your body. The reading tells you what percentage of your blood is saturated – known as SpO2 level. Studies show the best finger to use with a pulse ox is the right-hand middle finger. Some nail polish can interfere with readings, as can cold temperatures.

What should your level be?

Normal levels when using a pulse ox to measure SpO2 is between 95% and 100%. For those with severe lung disorders it is not uncommon for the range to fall between 88-92%

Below normal levels of blood oxygen is called hypoxemia, and this is a cause for concern. Hypoxemia can lead to complications in body tissue and organs. Normally an SpO2 reading below 90% is considered low. It is important to know what is normal for you, especially if you have a chronic lung condition, and your doctor can help provide information in this case.

Important note: people who smoke may have inaccurate pulse ox readings. Smoking causes an increase of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood and a pulse ox can’t decipher between CO2 and oxygen gases.

  • 95-100% normal pulse oximeter levels
  • Below 80-85% the brain gets affected
  • Below 67% cyanosis develops – a blue-ish discoloration of the skin, nail beds, and mucus membranes. This can indicate a life-threatening situation and needs immediate medical attention.

Symptoms of hypoxemia

If your SpO2 falls below the typical range you may experience

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Rapid heartbeat

Causes of low blood oxygen

Health conditions which can negatively impact your blood oxygen level include COPD / emphysema, asthma, anaemia, heart disease, pulmonary embolism and other respiratory conditions which prevent your lungs from adequately inhaling oxygen and exhaling CO2. Blood and circulatory disorders may also prevent adequate transportation of oxygen in the body.

Improving your blood oxygen levels

If your blood oxygen levels are consistently low you should check with your doctor.

Blood oxygen levels can improve with learning to breathe properly and by practicing breathing exercises to help strengthen the respiratory system. Breathing through your nose increases your nitric oxide levels and your CO2 levels which help to open your airways and oxygenate your tissues.

Get outside and breathe fresh air. Going for a walk outside helps to increase blood flow, improve digestion, and improve energy. Preferably walk somewhere away from cars and traffic.

Quit smoking. Smoking negatively impacts circulation and overall oxygen levels.

Fill your home with house plants. Plants help to purify the air and make more oxygen available for you to breathe.

Find out more or book an appointment to discuss improving your blood oxygen levels.