How to Use a Stethoscope

As a registered nurse, I carry my stethoscope everywhere. It has many uses and should be used often. Even people who don't know how to use one still knows what it looks like. They are one of the most recognized pieces of medical equipment.

Kinds and uses  Anatomy  Diaphragm and bell  More tips  Recommend

Various Kinds and Uses

There are many different types of stethoscopes that vary in style, function, and price including acoustic, electronic, fetal, and doppler. I'm going to focus on the acoustic in particular for this page since it's the most well known. It's also the kind I own and use myself.

They have various uses including checking a manual blood pressure, listening to heart sounds, breath sounds, lung sounds, and more. But more on those things later on other pages. For now, lets focus on the basics and how to use one.

The Anatomy of the Device

There are two primary parts of the stethoscope that are connected by the tubing. They include the headset, which is the part that has the earpieces that go inside of your ears. The other part is the chestpiece, which is placed on various parts of the patient.

First you have to decide which side you are going to use. The diaphragm side, which is the larger side, is used for low frequency sounds. The bell side, which is the smaller side, is used for high frequency sounds. When in doubt, the diaphragm side is typically the one to start with.

Switching Between the Diaphragm and Bell

The kind of stethoscope you are using determines how you switch between the two. You can usually tell by the earpieces. If they are facing each other directly, then you simply flip the entire device around to switch between the two sides. 

If the earpieces are angled, you have to twist the chestpiece itself in order to switch between the two. Twist it until you hear a click or feel it lock into place. You'll be able to clearly tell when this happens. The twisting motion will happen with ease if it has this function.

To confirm it is on the correct side, place the earpieces in your ears and gently tap which side you want to use to confirm sound can clearly be heard. Some even have an indicator dot directly above the chestpiece to visually show which side is active.

A Few More Tips

Some stethoscopes don't have angled earpieces but if they are angled, make sure they are placed in your ears properly. It's easy to put them in backwards if you aren't paying attention. The two pieces should be angled in front of you pointing towards your nose.

Be sure to clean it often especially if you are using it on multiple patients or ones on contact isolation. Depending on the facility, they may even supply disposable ones for patients who are especially contagious. Stethoscopes can be quite a home for lots of bacteria. Alcohol swabs or disinfecting wipes should do the trick.

Which One do I Recommend?

The one I have specifically is the Littmann cardiology IV that my older brother got me for graduating nursing school. I carry it around my neck everywhere I go while working in the hospital, ready to be used on any and all of my patients. It even has my name engraved on it in case it gets lost.

It works wonderfully but it is a bit pricey at around $200. You don't necessarily have to get one that expensive, but you do get what you pay for. Be prepared to spend at least $50 plus in order to get one that is functional and durable enough for multiple uses.

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