Pulse Oximetry FAQ
Does anemia interfere with pulse oximeter accuracy?
There are limited data on the effect of severe anemia (hgb <7 g/dL) on pulse oximeter accuracy, and this is still an active area of research. Some studies have suggested that severe anemia may affect pulse oximeter readings. They have shown that in hypoxemic patients (SaO2 is below 80%) with very low hemoglobin concentrations, SpO2 may give falsely low readings and underestimate the real SaO2. However, for normoxic patients, anemia appears to have less of an effect on SpO2 measurements.
Another study has reported that in the setting of acute hemorrhage, pulse oximeters remain accurate even down to a hemoglobin of 2.3 g/dL in patients with SaO2 of >93% (normoxic).
However, there is still a need for further data to better understand how severe anemia affects oximetry accuracy, especially during concurrent significant hypoxemia. This is an active area of research for the UCSF Hypoxia Lab and OpenOximetry.org.
Severe anemia and concurrent hypoxemia are more common than you might think. Using the example of malaria, one of many common causes of anemia worldwide, severe malarial anemia (Hgb <5 g/dL), accounts for nearly 1 million childhood deaths in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) each year (18% of all childhood deaths in SSA). The prevalence of severe anemia (Hgb <7 g/dL) from any cause has been reported in nearly 1 in 10 children in SSA.
References: Severinghaus et al, Anesthesiology 1992; Jay et al, Ann Emerg Med 1994; Severinghaus et al, J Clin Monit 1990; Chan et al, Respir Med 2013
Keywords: anemia, low hemoglobin
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