Your Next Smartwatch Could Tell When You’re Getting Ill

(Image credit: Unknown)

Fitness trackers get more advanced by the week and next time you opt to upgrade your Fitbit, Withings, TomTom, Garmin, Apple Watch or whatever else, you could be getting a device that will let you know when you’re about to get sick.

A team from Stanford University, California, have demonstrated that fitness trackers can be used to detect the early signs of illness.

More than 40 volunteers wore devices that tracked their pulse and skin temperature for two years. It was discovered that in the days leading up to illness, the devices would record abnormally high heart rates and sometimes higher skin temperatures.

The devices could detect the changes up to three days before any other symptoms of a cold or infection presented themselves.

“Once these wearables collect enough data to know what your normal baseline readings are, they can get very good at sensing when something’s amiss,” says Michael Snyder, a member of the Stanford research team.

“We think that if your heart rate and skin temperature are elevated for about two hours, there’s a strong chance you’re getting sick.”

Snyder encountered the potential of wearables to detect illness first hand last year. He had been wearing seven different sensors to test their reliability when they began to show unusual readings. His heart rate was elevated, his skin temperature rose, and the level of oxygen in his blood fell.

Despite showing no obvious symptoms, Snyder thought he might have caught Lyme disease from a tick during a trip to rural Massachusetts. When a mild fever arose, he asked for the antibiotic doxycycline, which can treat Lyme disease, and it cleared the symptoms in a day. Later tests confirmed his self diagnosis.

Of course, knowing you are about to get sick will often not stop you actually getting sick, but if wearables are able to detect illness a few days before symptoms arise, it could allow for earlier interventions and stop more serious problems developing.

It could also be useful in day to day life. If you notice your heart rate is unusually high or your temperature is raised, you might opt to give your body a rest and head home for an early night rather than hitting the town and perhaps exacerbating an upcoming illness.

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Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.