The respiratory rate is the number of breaths someone takes every minute and is one of the main vital signs, along with blood pressure, pulse, and temperature.
When a person inhales, oxygen enters their lungs and travels to the organs. When they exhale, carbon dioxide leaves the body. A normal respiratory rate plays a critical role in keeping the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide even.
Normal respiratory range in adults
Although the normal respiratory rate can vary slightly between individuals, there is a range that doctors and nurses consider usual.
The normal respiratory rate for healthy adults is between 12 and 20 breaths per minute.
At this breathing rate, the carbon dioxide exits the lungs at the same rate that the body produces it. Breathing rates of below 12 or above 20 can mean a disruption in normal breathing processes.
Normal respiratory ranges in children
Normal respiratory rates for children in breaths per minute are as follows:
- birth to 1 year: 30 to 60
- 1 to 3 years: 24 to 40
- 3 to 6 years: 22 to 34
- 6 to 12 years: 18 to 30
- 12 to 18 years: 12 to 16
Common causes of high respiration include:
- Anxiety: People may breathe faster when they are afraid or anxious. Fast breathing, or hyperventilation, is a common symptom of panic attacks. The fast breathing will usually pass once the anxiety goes away.
- Fever: As the body temperature increases with a fever, respiratory rate can also increase. The increase is the body’s way of trying to get rid of the heat.
- Respiratory diseases: Various lung diseases, such as asthma, pneumonia, and COPD, can make it difficult to breathe, which can lead to an increase in respiratory rate.
- Heart problems: If the heart does not pump properly to get oxygen to the organs, the body may react by breathing faster.
- Dehydration: Dehydration can increase breathing rate as the body tries to get energy to the cells.
Causes of low respiration rate
Factors that can cause a low respiration rate include:
- Drug overdose: An overdose of certain drugs, such as narcotics, can depress the breathing drive in the brain leading to low respiration rates.
- Obstructive sleep apnea: Sleep apnea involves a blockage of the airway often due to relaxation of the soft tissues in the throat. The blockage causes brief pauses in breathing and may decrease overall respiratory rate.
- Head injury: Head injuries can affect the area in the brain that plays a role in breathing, which may cause low respirations.
When to see a doctor
A mild variation from normal respiratory rate may not be a cause for concern. But in some cases, a respiratory rate that is too high or too low can be a sign of a medical problem.
If respiratory rate is very abnormal, or if a person has signs of infection such as fever, fatigue, or a sore throat, they may benefit from seeing a doctor.
People that have lung diseases, such as emphysema, asthma, and chronic bronchitis, may also want to see a doctor if their respiratory rate is abnormal. It can be a sign that their lung disease is worsening.
Seek immediate assistance if any of the following is present:
- chest pain
- bluish skin
- gurgling sounds during breathing
- breathing very few breaths per minute
A normal respiratory rate varies based on age and activity levels. But various conditions including illnesses and injuries can also lead to a breathing rate that is too high or too low.
It is important to take an accurate measurement of respiratory rate to determine whether or not it is abnormal. In some instances, an abnormal breathing rate can be an indication of an underlying medical issue, which requires treatment.
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