Want to know four numbers that can warn you about most health problems?
Vital signs are a measurement, or a snapshot, of your body’s basic (life-sustaining) functions. Not only do your vital signs tell you how well your body’s functioning, but they also provide early detection of serious health conditions.
Usually, you get your vitals checked at the doctor’s office or the emergency room, but you can check them at home. In this article, you’ll learn the vital signs, how to measure them, what’s normal, and what they mean for your health.
Table of Contents
What Are The 4 Vital Signs?
The four main vital signs monitored by health care providers are the following:
- Body temperature
- Pulse rate
- Respiration rate (breathing rate)
- Blood pressure
1. What Is A Normal Body Temperature?
Normal body temperature ranges from 97.7 to 99.5°F (36.5 to 37.5°C) (1). A healthy body functions best at 98.6°F (37°C), but everyone has their own normal. Body temperature varies depending on gender, time of day, activity level, food or fluid consumption, and the site measured. Or for women, the stage of the menstrual cycle.
Your body constantly adapts its temperature to your environment. It elevates during exercise and lowers during sleep. It’s lowest when you wake up and highest later in the day.
Core body temperature is closely regulated by an area of the brain called the hypothalamus (2).
The hypothalamus compares your current temperature with the normal temperature of about 98.6°F. If your temperature is too low, the hypothalamus prompts your body to generate and retain heat. If your temperature is too high, your body releases heat or produces sweat to cool your skin.
Why Is Body Temperature Measured?
- Check for a fever accompanied by signs of infection or inflammation
- Check for signs of hypothermia accompanied with a low temperature
- Establish a baseline for each person’s normal body temperature for both the location and the measuring conditions.
Besides the time of day, their age, gender, and activity level, and measuring site; what is a normal temperature for the patient? It’s important to track and review a patient’s temperature overtime to make the right diagnosis.
What Is A Fever?
Fever, or hyperthermia, is when your temperature is higher than normal.
- A fever for adults is s above 99°F to 99.5°F (37.2°C to 37.5°C) (3)
- A fever for children is 100.4°F (38°C) measured rectally, 99.5°F (37.5°C) orally, 99°F (37.2°C) measured axillary.
A fever generally means that your body is trying to fight a virus or bacteria causing an infection. Other fever causes include the following (4):
- Anti-seizure drugs
- Autoimmune disease
- Blood pressure medications
- Heat exhaustion
Other fever symptoms include:
- Chills and shaking
What Is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is an abnormally low body temperature caused by staying in cold temperatures for a long time (5). It’s defined as a drop in body temperature below 95°F (35 °C).
Hypothermia means the body is losing heat faster than it can produce it (6). If left untreated, severe hypothermia can range from an irregular heartbeat, respiratory and heart failure, and death. Hypothermia is dangerous because it impairs your ability to think clearly and move well, making it harder to get treatment in time.
Early symptoms of hypothermia include:
- Cold skin
- Loss of coordination
Even temperatures above 40°F or 4°C can cause hypothermia in someone who is cold due to sweat, rain, or being in cold water for a long period of time.
Where To Take Body Temperature
Body temperature is taken by choosing the best site of the body for the situation. Understanding the site differences is important. Each site has advantages and disadvantages depending on the need for accuracy or convenience.
The locations for taking body temperature include:
- Orally: Oral temperature is taken by mouth with either a traditional glass thermometer or a digital thermometer. The oral temperature is both very convenient and reliable.
- Auxillary: Auxillary temperature is taken under the armpit with a glass or digital thermometer. The auxiliary temperature is about 0.5 °F lower than the oral temperature (7). The auxiliary is convenient, but it isn’t recommended because it’s less accurate.
- Rectally: Rectal temperature is taken in the bottom using a glass or digital thermometer. Rectal temperature tends to be 0.5 °F higher than the oral temperature (7). This method is inconvenient, but it’s considered the “gold standard” for recording temperature. because it measures internal body temperature.
- Aural. Aural temperature is taken in the ear using a special device (7). This device is designed to measure the temperature of the eardrum, which reflects core body temperature. Aural temperature is convenient, but it’s also not recommended because it’s less accurate.
- Skin. Skin temperature is measured using a special device designed for the skin.
Do This Before You Measure Body Temperature
Certain activities affect body temperature temporarily. For the best results, wait until the patient’s body has time to return to normal.
- Wait 30 minutes after eating, drinking a cold or hot liquid, or smoking
- Wait an hour after exercise or taking a hot shower or bath
Besides the site and activity, make note of the time of day.
How To Take Measure Temperature (Orally)
For taking temperature, you’ll need a glass thermometer without mercury, or an electronic thermometer.
- Clean the thermometer before use
- If it’s a glass thermometer, hold the opposite end of the bulb and shake the thermometer down until it reads 95°F or lower.
- Place the thermometer under the tongue, where it meets the lower jaw (the posterior subliminal pocket). This area gives the best reliability.
- Make sure the mouth is closed and the lips are holding the thermometer in place
- For a glass thermometer, hold the thermometer in place for three minutes
- For an electronic thermometer, wait for a beep
How Do Age and Fitness Level Affect Body Temperature?
Younger and fitter patients record wider temperature amplitudes (a wider range between the high and low temperatures) (7). But older and less fit patients recorded smaller amplitudes (a narrower range between high and low.
As a person ages, their body temperature generally decreases. And the ability of their body to adapt to different kinds of stressors decreases. Because of this, even subtle variations in core temperature can be significant for older patients. A fever in an older patient generally signifies a more severe infection that could be more life-threatening (7).
2. What Is The Pulse Rate?
The pulse rate (heart rate) is the number of times your heart beats per minute. As your heart pushes blood through your arteries, the arteries expand and contract as the blood flows.
What Is A Normal Pulse Rate?
A normal resting pulse rate for adults ranges from between 60 beats per minute (bpm) and 100 bpm (8).
Athletes, or those who do a lot of cardio, may have heart rates around 40 bpm. Although their heart rates are abnormal, they’re still healthy because their hearts are strong enough to pump more blood per heartbeat.
Your normal heart rate depends on many variables such as the following:
- Physical fitness
Normal Resting Heart Rate Chart
|Newborns 0 to 1-month-old||70 to 190 bpm|
|Infants 1 to 11 months old||80 to 160 bpm|
|Children 1 to 2 years old||80 to 130 bpm|
|Children 3 to 4 years old||80 to 120 bpm|
|Children 5 to 6 years old||75 to 115 bpm|
|Children 10 years and older (and adults)||60 to 100 bpm|
Data from the National Institute of Health:
How To Check Your Pulse: Step-By-Step
You can find your pulse on the inside of your wrist (radial artery), the side of your neck (carotid artery), or the inside of your elbow (brachial artery). Although clinicians mostly check the carotid artery in the neck, Generally, the wrist is the easiest to take your pulse.
Follow these guidelines from the American Heart Association to check your pulse:
- Find your pulse on the inside of your wrist (on the thumb side). Face your palm upward in front of you.
- With the tips of your index and middle finger (don’t use your thumb), press your artery firmly but gently until you feel your pulse (a throbbing feeling)
- Count the heartbeats for 60 seconds (or count for 30 seconds then multiply by two for your beats per minute).
If you take your pulse on your lower neck, press lightly. But never press on the pulses on both sides of your lower neck at the same time, because this could block blood flow to your brain.
What Does Your Pulse Tell You?
Your pulse can tell you the following:
- Heart rate: A heart rate that’s too fast is tachycardia (above 100 bpm), a heart rate that’s too slow is bradycardia (below 60 bpm)
- Heart rhythm: Check whether the pulse rhythm could be regular, irregular, or irregularly irregular.
- Pulse strength
What Is A Low Heart Rate?
A heart rate that’s too low, called bradycardia, generally is below 60 bpm (9). For people who don’t exercise, a heart rate below 60 bpm could be dangerous.
Underlying health conditions of a low heart rate include:
- An electrolyte imbalance
- Congenital heart disease
- Damage to the heart (from heart disease or heart attack)
- Chronic inflammation
- Hypotension (low blood pressure)
- Medication side effects
- Myocarditis (a heart infection)
- Problems with the heart’s conduction system
- Sleep apnea
What Is A High Heart Rate?
A high heart rate, or tachycardia, is generally a heart rate over 100 bpm for adults (10). But what’s too fast for you depends on your age and physical condition. Having a high heart rate is usually only dangerous when there isn’t an obvious cause.
Underlying health conditions that raise heart rate include:
- Congenital heart disease
- Heart Disease that affects blood flow
- Heart injury: for example, a heart attack
- Ventricular or supraventricular arrhythmias
Without proper treatment, tachycardia can cause the following:(11)
- Cardiac arrest or death
- Chest pain
- Fainting or feeling dizzy
- Heart damage
- Organ failure
Learn more about heart rates in What Is A Dangerous Heart Rate?
3. What Is Respiration Rate?
Respiration rate is the number of breaths you take in one minute at rest (12). The normal respiration rate for adults is 12 to 18 breaths per minute. Generally, women have slightly faster respiration rates than men (13).
If your oxygen level in your blood is low, or your carbon dioxide level in your blood is high, your brain tells your body to breathe more frequently.
The respiratory rate is the most neglected vital sign. But it’s more sensitive than the other vital signs in detecting critically ill patients (14). One study found that elevated respiration rate was a better predictor of stable versus unstable patients than blood pressure or pulse rate (15).
Normal Respiration Rates For Children Chart
|Newborn||30 to 60 breaths per minute|
|Infants (1 to 12 months old)||30 to 60 breaths per minute|
|Toddler (1 to 2 years old)||24 to 40 breaths per minute|
|Preschooler (3 to 5 years old)||22 to 34 breaths per minute|
|Children 6 to 12 years old||18 to 30 breaths per minute|
|Adolescent (13 to 17 years old)||12 to 16 breaths per minute|
Date from the National Institute of Health
How To Measure Respiration Rate
Respiration rate is measured by counting your breaths for one minute at rest. The best way to measure respiration rate is for someone to count your breaths for you without telling you when they’re counting. If you’re observing your own breathing, you may try to breathe slower than usual, causing an inaccurate count.
- Make sure the person being tested is at rest and not focused on controlling their breathing
- Count the number of times the person’s chest rises for one minute
Answer the following questions to help your medical provider diagnose abnormal respiration rates.
- Are you having difficulty breathing at rest?
- What is your depth of breathing?
- What is your breathing pattern?
What Is A High Respiration Rate?
Respiration rates higher than normal are called tachypnea. A rate of 20 breaths per minute is considered higher than normal. A rate above 24 breaths per minute, unless related to a psychological condition such as a panic attack, generally indicates a serious health problem (16).
What Causes A High Respiration Rate?
Many variables can affect respiration rate, regardless of whether they’re related to the lungs or not. An increased respiration rate in adults could be caused by physiological conditions such as exercise, emotions, or pregnancy.
Underlying conditions that cause tachypnea include:
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Diabetic ketoacidosis
- Exercise (temporarily)
- Experiencing pain
- Heart problems
- Lung issues
- Narcotics or drug overdose
What Is A Low Respiration Rate?
A respiration rate that’s lower than normal is called bradypnea. A rate of 12 breaths per minute is considered abnormal for adults.
Bradypnea can be due to any respiratory condition that causes respiratory failure or because of the following:
- Airway obstructions
- Metabolic derangements
- Narcotics/drug overdose
- Sleep apnea
- Stroke or head injury
Breathing Depth: Hyperpnea Vs. Hyperventilation
The depth of breathing is also an important indicator. Abnormally deep or shallow breathing could be a sign of a serious condition.
- Congestive heart failure
- High altitude
- Lung infections
- Metabolic acidosis
- Panic attacks
Hyperventilation means both an increased rate and depth of breathing (19). Hyperventilation can be caused by:
- Diabetic ketoacidosis
- Lactic acidosis
You breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Rapid breathing lowers carbon dioxide in the blood causing the following symptoms:
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations
- Muscle spasms in hands and feet
- Shortness of breath
4. What Is Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against your blood vessel walls during the contraction and relaxation of your heart (20). A heartbeat means that the heart is squeezing blood out of the heart into the arteries. Blood pressure is highest when the heart contracts, and lowest when it relaxes.
Blood pressure is recorded as two numbers. The higher number (on the top) is the systolic pressure. Systolic pressure represents the pressure in the arteries when the heart contracts and pumps blood through your body. The lower number (on the bottom) is called diastolic pressure. Diastolic pressure is the pressure on the arteries when your heart rests and fills with blood.
Both systolic and diastolic blood pressures are recorded as “mm Hg” (millimeters of mercury).
Blood Pressure Ranges
There’s no normal blood pressure, but there’s a normal range. Blood pressure is categorized in the following stages:
- Normal blood pressure: systolic pressure under 120 and diastolic under 80 (120/80)
- Elevated blood pressure: systolic pressure between 120 and 129 and diastolic under 80
- Stage 1 high blood pressure: systolic pressure between 130 and 139 and diastolic between 80 and 89
- Stage 2 high blood pressure: systolic pressure of 140 or higher and diastolic 90 or higher
- Hypertensive crisis: a blood pressure reading that exceeds180/120 mmHg and remains high when measured again five minutes later. A hypertensive crisis requires immediate medical attention.
What is normal varies, talk with your health provider about your normal blood pressure. But generally, your risk of disease increases with your blood pressure reading.
How To Get The Most Accurate Blood Pressure Reading
The American Heart Association recommends the following guidelines for monitoring blood pressure. Failing to follow these guidelines could lead to inaccurate results.
- Go to the bathroom before taking your blood pressure. Having a full bladder can add 10-15 mmHg to blood pressure readings (21).
- Don’t smoke or use any nicotine products for at least 30 minutes before checking your blood pressure. And don’t consume caffeine at least an hour before.
- Sit and relax for at least five minutes.
- Sit with your back and feet supported, keep your feet on the ground, and keep your legs uncrossed. Having an unsupported back and feet can add 6 mmHg to the pressure readings, and crossed legs can add 2 to 4 mmHg (21)
- Don’t talk during the test as talking or active listening can add 10 mmHg to blood pressure readings (21).
- Keep your arm relaxed and supported at heart level on a solid flat surface. Having an unsupported arm can add 10 mmHg to blood pressure readings (21)
- Place the blood pressure cuff an inch above the elbow. Make sure the cuff fits your arm. A cuff that’s too loose gives a falsely lower blood pressure. And a cuff that’s too tight gives a reading that’s falsely higher (22).
- Measure your blood pressure at the same time every day, or when your health care provider recommends.
- Take two to three measurements one minute apart and record each reading.
- Record the date, time, and blood pressure reading.
- Take your blood pressure record to your next medical appointment.
- Call your medical provider if you have several high blood pressure readings. Or when your provider tells you to contact them if your blood pressure readings are out of the normal range.
- Seek emergency medical attention if your systolic (top number) reaches 180, or your diastolic (bottom number) reaches 110 or higher.
Use your blood pressure only as a guide. A single high blood pressure reading above normal isn’t necessarily bad. Your medical provider will study multiple blood pressure readings over days or weeks.
What Is Hypertension?
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is when your blood pressure is consistently too high (23). For adults, high blood pressure is generally above 130/80.
What Are the Dangers of High Blood Pressure?
Chronic high blood pressure (hypertension) can increase your risk of the following (24):
- Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
- Heart attack
- Heart failure
- Kidney damage
What Is Hypotension?
Low blood pressure, called hypotension, is generally a blood pressure reading below 90 mm Hg systolic, and 60 mm Hg diastolic (25).
What Are the Symptoms of Low Blood Pressure?
Low blood pressure means that your heart can’t deliver enough blood to your body, causing more serious problems. Symptoms of hypotension include the following:
- Blurred vision
- Unexplained sleepiness
You should tell your doctor about symptoms of low blood sugar because they could be signs of a more serious health problem. Keep a record of your symptoms and for your next appointment with your medical provider.
When Is Low Blood Pressure An Emergency?
Seek emergency medical attention if you have signs of shock. Shock symptoms include (25):
- Cold, clammy, pale skin
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Weak and rapid heart rate
Chronically low blood pressure can harm your kidneys. And a dramatic drop in blood pressure can cause fainting, shock, coma, and death.
Are Your Vital Signs In The Normal Range?
Your health, or the health of your loved ones, is important to you. That’s why you want to know how to check your vital signs correctly and understand what they mean.
Now you know how to check your vital signs accurately and what’s the normal range for blood pressure, pulse rate, body temperature, and respiration rate.
Are you n the normal range? If you’re not, work with your medical provider to find your normal range, and find any problems before they become serious.