Tracking Your Health When You Have a Chronic Illness: The Ultimate Guide

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This story is part Health in numbersCNET’s deep dive into how we quantify health.

Fitbits and Apple watches aside, health tracking is more than just a fitness hobby for about half of American adults who have at least one chronic condition, according to the 2018 National Health Survey. or the conditions you suffer from, you will often need to monitor your own parameters at home in addition to your professional medical care, and feeling empowered to do so correctly can make all the difference to your health. The same is true if you are newly responsible for caring for a loved one.

Determine what measurements you need keeping track, however, can be overwhelming at first – let alone finding the best equipment for precise results. Here’s everything you need to know about health indicators to track for some of the most common health conditions in the United States, including diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and more.

Keep in mind that these tools are most accurate when used under the guidance of a healthcare professional, and no home device can replace state-of-the-art equipment in a healthcare facility.

Man at home pricks his finger to check blood sugar.

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blood sugar

Monitoring your blood sugar can be extremely important if you have diabetes or hypoglycemia, and can also be helpful for people with prediabetes. Depending on your condition and your doctor’s advice, you may need to check your blood sugar once a day or even several times a day.

The easiest and most affordable way to monitor your blood sugar at home is to take a blood sugar test, which is a simple finger prick. You can also invest in a continuous glucometer for more intensive monitoring all day without finger pricks. Your insurance may cover a continuous glucometer, depending on the severity of your condition.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a key health indicator – too much “bad” cholesterol (or LDL cholesterol) puts you at higher risk for heart disease and stroke. Ideal cholesterol levels vary by age and sex.

You can measure your cholesterol level at home, but it does not replace a proper test at the doctor’s office. Many home kits only measure the total amount of cholesterol in your blood, rather than differentiating between bad and good. Plus, following instructions can get tricky without an expert to guide you, which can skew results, according to Harvard Health.

If you choose to use a home test, the Mayo Clinic recommends that you look for one certified by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And if your results show worrying numbers, go to a professional for a follow-up.

A pregnant person at the kitchen table checks her blood pressure.

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Arterial pressure

Blood pressure is one of the first vital parameters that a nurse measures when you go to the doctor. It’s an important health measure in general, but especially for people with hypertension or high blood pressure, as well as those at high risk, according to the American Heart Association. It may also be suitable for anyone with other heart-related health conditions or pregnancy-induced hypertension and/or preeclampsia.

The AHA recommends an upper arm blood pressure monitor for the greatest precision; only use a wrist monitor if you can’t fit an upper arm cuff. As with other home tests, you will need to measure correctly to get useful results. Learn more about how to take blood pressure at home.

Rhythm and heart rate

Your heart rate is one of the easiest health metrics to track at home — you can do it yourself without any equipment by simply checking your pulse. But if you have atrial fibrillation or another type of irregular heartbeat, you may need a more robust way to monitor your heart rate and rhythm.

This is where the house is electrocardiogram Monitors come in. Also called EKG or EKG monitors, they measure heart rate and rhythm and display the results on a graph. Personal ECGs aren’t as accurate as professional ECGs, but they’re useful for getting readings at home that you can then take to a doctor if you notice anything unusual. Look for one that is approved or cleared by the Food and Drug Administration.

Note that some smartwatches have ECG technology, including watches from Apple, Fitbit, and other brands. Smartwatches are not medical devices and should not replace a real ECG monitor, but it can be a useful feature for some people.

Close-up of a dark-skinned hand using a pulse oximeter.

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blood oxygen

Measuring your blood oxygen at home has become more popular during the COVID pandemic. When recovering from COVID at home, a low blood oxygen level (below 90%) is a sign that it’s time to seek emergency medical attention. Blood oxygen can also be a useful health measure to monitor if you have other lung or heart related health conditions.

Blood oxygen is best measured with a pulse oximeter, which you can find at most pharmacies or online. Some smart watches can also measure blood oxygenalthough most are not FDA cleared for this purpose.

Unfortunately, even FDA-approved pulse oximeters aren’t perfect. Studies show they are less accurate on darker skin tones, which can lead to missed warning signs. Scientists are still working on solutions to this problem.

If you have darker skin, it’s especially important to take multiple readings throughout the day and watch for any physical symptoms of lack of oxygen, such as shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, or rapid breathing rate.

Lung function

If you have breathing problems or a lung condition, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or even asthma, it may be beneficial to have your lung function measured at home in addition to your doctor’s office tests.

You can measure your lung function using a peak flow meter, available at most pharmacies. Measure and record your highest readings every day for two to three weeks. Your health care provider can help you determine what healthy reading is for you. You can also use a home spirometer to measure lung function.

lester

Weight is another measurement that is easy to track at home with any standard household scale. Small day-to-day weight fluctuations (think around 5 pounds) are common for most people and can be attributed to the digestive process, hormonal changes, and other normal bodily functions.

But it may be important to weigh yourself regularly if you have certain health conditions, such as heart failure, to monitor how well your treatment is working and whether your condition is getting worse. Unintentional weight loss or gain is also a symptom of a wide range of diseases and a side effect of certain medications.

Weight tracking can also be risky for the mental health of some people. Your doctor can help you determine if watching your weight is a good idea.

The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical or health advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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