Do you want to know what your breathing means for your health?
Your resting respiration rate is more sensitive than your other vital signs. Knowing the normal respiration rate for your age and for you can give you an early warning of serious health problems.
In this article, you’ll learn what is respiration, what is the normal respiration rate, what a high or low breathing rate means, and how to measure your respiration rate.
What Is the Respiration Rate?
The respiration rate is the number of breaths you take in one minute at rest (1). Generally, the respiration rate is measured by counting the number of times the chest rises and falls. It’s also important to check if the person has difficulty breathing.
The respiration rate is important because it’s consistent. Unlike resting heart rate, the resting respiration rate doesn’t usually change unless there’s an underlying health problem.
What Is Respiration?
Respiration is the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen between the air and your cells (2). Your body receives mostly oxygen through inhalation and eliminates carbon dioxide through exhalation. Respiration is also the metabolic process that converts carbohydrates, fats, and amino acids into energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
What Is Normal Respiration Rate For Adults?
The normal respiration rate for adults is 12 to 20 breaths per minute. Respiration rate is an important vital sign because your resting respiration rate usually stays in a narrow range. If your respiration rate is below normal, it could mean you have a problem with your nervous system. If it’s above normal, it could be an early warning of a heart or respiratory problem.
Generally, women have a higher respiration rate than men (3).
What Is the Normal Respiratory Rate for the Elderly?
The normal respiratory rate for adults ages 65 to 80 is about 12 to 25 breaths per minute (4). And for adults over 80, the normal respiration range is about 10 to 30 breaths per minute. Older adults generally have a higher respiration rate than younger adults because they have more health problems.
What Is the Normal Respiration Rate For Children?
Children have a faster breathing rate because they have a faster metabolism. The breathing rate slows and levels off in adulthood. According to the National Institute of Health, the respiration rate in children by age is the following:
- Newborn: 30 to 60 breaths per minute
- Infants (1 to 12 months): 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
The Normal Respiration Rates Chart By Age
The respiration rate varies from individual, but each age group usually shares a normal range.
|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|
|Adults 18 and older||12 to 20 breaths per minute|
|Adults 65 to 80||12 to 25 breaths per minute|
|Adults over 80||10 to 30 breaths per minute|
You should consider other vital signs and health conditions to determine what’s the normal respiration rate for each individual. If your respiration rate isn’t normal for you, even if it’s in the normal range for your age, it could be caused by an underlying health condition.
What Is A Slow Respiration Rate?
A low respiratory rate, called bradypnea, is a respiratory rate under 12 breathes per minute (5). Generally, bradypnea has a few main causes such as respiratory conditions, airway obstructions, heart conditions/cardiac arrest, or nervous system dysfunction. The causes of bradypnea include:
- Alcohol, narcotics/drug overdose. Alcohol, benzodiazepines and some narcotics are depressants that affect your nervous system (6).
- Hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism slows metabolism and weakens the muscles of the lungs making it harder to breathe (7).
- Obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a blockage of your airway, usually due to the relaxation of the soft tissues in your throat (8). This blockage causes short pauses in breathing and may slow your normal respiration rate.
- Stroke or brain injury. Respiratory dysfunction is common after a stroke (9). And brain injuries can affect the area of the brain that controls respiration and may decrease the breathing rate.
Symptoms of a slow breathing rate include (10):
- A resting breathing rate under 12 breaths per minute for adults
- A resting breathing rate that’s below the normal range for a child’s age
- Chest pain
- Chronic fatigue
- Dizziness/feeling faint
- Lack of coordination
- Memory problems/confusion
What Is A Fast Respiration Rate?
A respiration rate that’s faster than normal is called tachypnea. For adults, a fast respiration rate is above 20 breaths per minute (11). Respiration rates above 24 breaths per minute could be caused by temporary psychological conditions such as a panic attack. But rates have 24 breaths per minute unrelated to a psychological condition could mean a serious health condition (12).
What Causes Tachypnea?
A high respiration rate in adults could be caused by temporary physiological conditions such as emotions, exercise, or pregnancy. Causes of tachypnea include:
- Anxiety or panic attacks. When your brain perceives you’re in danger it activates the sympathetic nervous system. Your pulse, blood pressure, and breathing rate increase to prepare for action. Your breathing should return to normal when the perceived threat is gone (13).
- Dehydration. Dehydration decreases your blood flow and affects electrolyte levels. Your body will increase your breathing rate to get enough energy to your cells (14).
- Fever. Your body may increase your respiration rate to lose some heat (15).
- Heart conditions. If your heart isn’t pumping enough oxygen-rich blood to your organs, your brain may signal your body to breathe faster (16).
- Respiratory conditions: (17) Respiratory conditions such as asthma, carbon monoxide poisoning, COPD, pleural effusion, and pulmonary embolism. Respiratory conditions can block your airways or slow oxygen absorption. Your body may overcompensate by increasing your breathing rate to get enough oxygen and release enough carbon dioxide.
Symptoms of a fast breathing rate include (18):
- A resting breathing rate over 20 breaths per minute for adults
- A resting breathing rate over the normal range for a child’s age
- Fingers and lips have a bluish tint
- Shortness of breath
- The person is pulling in or retracting their chest while breathing
- Usage of accessory muscles to breathe
How To Measure the Respiration Rate
To measure the respiration rate, count the person’s breaths for one minute at rest. The best way to measure respiration rate is for someone to count the breaths for the person without telling them when they’re counting. If you’re counting your own breaths, you may try to breathe slower than usual, resulting in an inaccurate count.
For example, one study found that patients who knew when their breaths were being counted, breathed about 2.13 breaths slower per minute (19).
The steps for measuring the respiration are:
- Make sure the person being tested is at rest, no exercise or stressful activities before measuring
- Make sure they’re not focused on controlling their breathing
- Count the number of times their chest rises for one minute
Answer the following questions to help diagnose abnormal respiration rates.
- Is the person having difficulty breathing at rest?
- Do their neck muscles tighten as they breathe?
- What is the depth of breathing? Is it deep or shallow?
- What is the breathing pattern?
What Are The Vital Signs?
Vital signs are the measurements of your body’s primary functions. The respiration rate is one of the four main vital signs. The main vital signs include:
- Blood pressure: Blood pressure is the force of blood pressing against your blood vessel walls (20). Normal blood pressure for adults is 120/80 mm Hg.
- Heart rate: The heart rate (pulse rate) is the number of times your heart beats per minute. A normal resting heart rate for adults ranges from 60 beats per minute (bpm) to 100 bpm (21).
- Body Temperature: body temperature measures your core body temperature. For adults, body temperature ranges from 97.7 to 99.5°F (36.5 to 37.5°C) (22).
- Respiration Rate: The respiration rate is the number of breaths you take in a minute at rest (23). The normal respiration rate for adults is between 12 and 20 breaths per minute.
When To See A Doctor For Fast Or Slow Breathing Rates
A fast or slow resting breathing rate is a sign of an underlying health problem. You should contact your medical provider to determine what is causing an abnormal breathing rate.
Left untreated, a consistently low breathing rate can cause complications such as (24):
- Hypercapnia: When there’s too much carbon dioxide in the blood
- Hypoxemia: When not enough oxygen is delivered in the blood
- Respiratory acidosis: When the acid-base levels are out of balance which causes alveolar hypoventilation.
- Heart problems: Bradypnea can slow your heart making it unable to pump enough blood. A lack of blood flow can lead to cardiac arrest or sudden death.
Left untreated, consistently fast breathing rate can cause complications such as (18):
- Heart problems: Tachypnea can cause a reflex increase in the heart which can cause congestive heart failure.
- Low Carbon dioxide levels: A fast breathing rate means your body is getting rid of too much carbon dioxide.
- Organ dysfunction: Tachypnea caused by sepsis can lead to multiple organ dysfunction or MODS.
Contact your medical provider if you have an abnormal resting breathing rate or symptoms of a breathing problem.
Call 911 or get immediate medical attention if you think that someone’s breathing changed because of an overdose or poisoning.
What Do You Want To Take Your Breathe Away?
Now you know what’s a normal respiration rate for your age. You know what it means when your breathing is slow or fast.
Breathing is the only vital sign you can control actively. You can’t control your heart rate, blood pressure, or temperature. It’s also the easiest to observe. Slowing your breathing with meditation can also help lower the stress that increases your breathing rate.
Noticing a sudden or significant change to your resting breathing rate gives you an early warning of a serious health problem.
If your respiration rate is abnormal, you can work with your medical provider to find out why. You can make positive changes before a health problem gets worse.
What excites you? What takes your breath away? Use it as motivation to take care of your health.