Should Seniors Go to the Hospital with COVID-19 Symptoms?

High risk seniors should watch for hypoxia.

In her video “High Risk for COVID-19? Consider buying this $30 Device,”  Dr. Christy Reisinger suggests that some seniors should consider obtaining a pulse oximeter. She says that some seniors have existing illnesses that put them at higher risk for COVID-19 problems. Seniors in this higher-risk group should consider going to the Emergency Room if they have the symptoms discussed in her video.

If you are a senior with certain illnesses, Dr. Reisinger advises you to consider getting a pulse oximeter to test yourself for hypoxia. Seniors in the higher-risk group who have hypoxia and a fever should probably go to the Emergency Room. 

View the doctor’s video at the end of this article.

Monitoring Hypoxia Reduces Anxiety

Dr. Reisinger says that many people want to monitor their symptoms at home. They would rather not go to the emergency room if they do not have to. Doctors advise people to stay home “unless your symptoms get more severe.”

The problem people have is that they do not know what “more severe” means.

Are Dry Cough and Small Fever Reason to Go to the Emergency Room?

Dr. Reisinger says that the vast majority of COVID patients will have mild symptoms. They will have a dry (unproductive cough) and a fever. The fever might be as low as 99 degrees and still be a COVID symptom. Seniors with even a slight fever combined with hypoxia should consider being tested.

Higher Risk Seniors Should Test Blood Oxygen at Home

She says that 20% of COVID patients will have more severe symptoms. These will generally be patients who are 65 years of age or older. They have issues that might make them sicker. For example, cancer therapy can suppress the immune system.

High-risk seniors include those who:

  • use prednisone
  • have high blood pressure
  • have diabetes
  • have lung disease (COPD, emphysema)
  • have heart disease

Dr. Reisinger suggests that people in this group should monitor their symptoms more closely because of these other illnesses they already have.

Hypoxia Symptoms

One way to know if you need to go to the emergency room is to check for symptoms of hypoxia.

Hypoxia is “low oxygen saturation.” If COVID-19 compromises your lungs, your brain and tissues will not get enough oxygen. That’s why hypoxia is a COVID-19 symptom.

With hypoxia, your brain gets too little oxygen, so you might speak nonsense without really realizing why.

One way to check for hypoxia is to use a home pulse oximeter. Dr. Reisinger suggests who take prednisone, immuno-supression treatments, or who have diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease, should keep an eye on their oxygen levels. They should use a pulse oximeter.

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Using a Pulse Oximeter to Measure Hypoxia

Dr. Reisinger says that a pulse oximeter is very easy to use. To use an oximeter, place the device on your finger, and wait for a reading.

Normal oxygen saturation is between 95% and 100%. You should consider going to the Emergency Room if your oxygen saturation is below 95%. The low oxygen saturation is especially telling if you have other COVID symptoms such as a fever.

You can also check your lips and fingers for a blue coloring. The blue tint means your tissues are not getting enough oxygen. Blue lips and fingers indicate hypoxia.

Dr. Reisinger notes that most pulse oximeters will display your heart rate. Although the rate is important for other diagnoses, it is not relevant in deciding if your symptoms indicate a COVID-19 infection.

Difficulty Breathing

Another option is to check your respiration rate. This is how many breaths you take in one minute.

A normal respiratory rate is twelve to 20 respirations (breaths) per minute. If you are over 65 and you take more than 30 breaths per minute, you should consider getting the COVID test.

Hypoxia symptoms include:

  • a pulse oximeter rate under 95%
  • feeling very tired
  • not making sense (lack of brain oxygen)
  • bluish tint on lips or fingers
  • respiratory rate over 30 breaths per minute

Yale Medicine author Kathy Katella mostly agrees with Dr. Reisinger. Doctors use blood oxygen levels to assess lung disease, says Katella says in her Yale Medicine article, Should You Really Have a Pulse Oximeter at Home?


Katella says that COVID-19 can produce shortness of breath. Seniors are confused, she says. Is “shortness of breath” a good reason to go to the hospital? When combined with even a slight fever, seniors with shortness of breath should consider going to the hospital.

The Pulse Oximeter is the Silent Hypoxia Safety Net

A somewhat frightening symptom the Yale Medicine article points to is the “silent hypoxia” seen in COVID patients.

The lips do not turn blue, and the patient feels fine. However, the patient’s blood oxygen is clinically treatable.

Silent hypoxia can indicate pneumonia. Doctors often want patients with silent hypoxia on ventilators. Patients don’t know they have hypoxia, and so don’t present for treatment.

Dr. Denyse Lutchmansingh practices pulmonology. She says that outside a COVID pandemic, people do not need an oximeter unless they have established lung disease. But inside the pandemic, more at-risk seniors should use a pulse oximeter.

A New Hampshire COVID Doctor Wants More Home Pulse Oximeters

Dr. Richard Levitan travelled from New Hampshire to New York to treat COVID patients. (See The Infection That’s Silently Killing Coronavirus Patients.)

Dr. Levitan wants consumers to check their blood oxygen levels with home pulse oximeter monitors.

He says that the silent hypoxia is delaying hospital admission, as people don’t realize they’re sick. By the time doctors see these COVID patients, they are sicker and harder to treat.

Dr. Levitan treated New York COVID patients who did not even know they were sick with the virus.

This means they were exposing others to the virus before they went to the hospital.

In fact, he says, the disease was so silent, many of those Corona virus patients did not go to the hospital for virus symptoms. They were there for another reason. The hospital found COVID as a secondary diagnosis.

Silent Hypoxia Hides Pneumonia

Most pneumonia patients had such low oxygen levels that in any other scenario, Dr. Levitan would have expected them to die. These patients were using their cell phones. They did not know how sick they were.

“There is a way we could identify more patients who have COVID pneumonia sooner and treat them more effectively — and it would not require waiting for a coronavirus test at a hospital or doctor’s office. It requires detecting silent hypoxia early through a common medical device that can be purchased without a prescription at most pharmacies: a pulse oximeter.”

— Dr. Richard Levitan

Pulse Oximeters Most Likely to Get Well

In a study comparing patient outcomes, researchers had one group use pulse oximeters, while the other group did not. See Pulse-oximetry Accurately Predicts Lung Pathology and the Immune Response During Influenza Infection.

This study found that patients with home pulse oximeters self-identified with lung problems. They sought treatment earlier. They got better faster and in higher rates.

Researchers said that home pulse oximeters could  prevent lung damage so long as patients monitor their oxygen and take action when their oxygen is low. Action would mean going to a medical facility for tests and treatment.

Dr. Reisinger’s Video: High Risk for COVID-19? Consider Buying this $30 Device

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels, Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

About Caroline Bogart

Hello. My name is Caroline Bogart. I am a programmer, writer, and web developer. I build free websites for animal rescues. I was once featured in the Boston Globe. I am obssessed ways to avoid falling, saying mobile, and aging in place.

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