What Is a Normal Respiratory Rate?

If you are experiencing respiratory symptoms, you may be wondering, “What is a normal respiratory rate?” Let’s begin by talking about the normal range of respiratory rate for adults and children, how to accurately measure this rate, and what it means if the rate is abnormal.

causes of increased respiratory rate
Verywell / Jessica Olah

What the Respiratory Rate Means

The respiratory rate is defined as the number of breaths a person takes during a one-minute period of time while at rest. The normal ranges are for people at rest. Respiratory rates normally increase during exercise.

The number of breaths we take per minute is a sign of how often our brain is telling our bodies to breathe. If the oxygen level in the blood is low, or if the carbon dioxide level in the blood is high, our body is instructed to breathe more often.

For example, having a severe infection increases the carbon dioxide produced in the body, so even if there's a normal level of oxygen in the blood, the brain instructs the body to breathe more often to clear the carbon dioxide.

But there are times when this system doesn’t work so well, such as when people are treated with narcotic medications. These medications in effect dull the response of the brain to signals from the blood, so someone may breathe less often than needed. This may also occur with head injuries or a stroke that damage the respiratory center in the brain.

Recent studies suggest that an accurate recording of respiratory rate is very important in predicting serious medical events. Studies also suggest that measurements of respiratory rate are not done as often as they should be, so it's been coined the “ignored vital sign.”

Abnormal Respiratory Rates

Both an increased and decreased respiratory rate can be a sign that something is amiss in the body. An abnormal rate is fairly nonspecific, meaning there are many causes of both a rapid and a slow rate.

Medical professionals use several terms to describe abnormal respiratory rates, including:

  • Bradypnea is the medical term used to define breathing that is abnormally slow.
  • Tachypnea is the medical term used to define an elevated respiratory rate. This rapid respiratory rate is usually shallow, versus hyperpnea which can be rapid and deep.
  • Dyspnea refers to the sensation of shortness of breath and can occur with an elevated, a normal, or a decreased respiratory rate.
  • Hyperpnea refers to breathing that is abnormally deep and appears labored. It may occur with or without rapid breathing.
  • Apnea means literally “no breath” and refers to the absence of breathing.

The rate of breathing is separate from the sensation of feeling short of breath (dyspnea). Sometimes the respiratory rate may affect whether or not someone feels short of breath, but other times may not. They may feel short of breath with a very rapid respiratory rate, and may not feel short of breath with a very low respiratory rate.

Measuring Respiratory Rate

Respiratory rate is measured by counting the number of breaths a person takes in a one-minute period. Since many factors can affect the results, understanding how to take an accurate measurement is very important.

The rate should be measured at rest, not after someone has been up and walking about.

Being aware that your breaths are being counted can make the results inaccurate, as people often alter the way they breathe if they know it's being monitored. Nurses are skilled at overcoming this problem by discretely counting respirations, watching the number of times your chest rises and falls—often while pretending to take your pulse.

That said, medical professionals should be aware that one study found that observed respiratory rates (rates measured when the patient was aware they were being measured) were on average 2.13 breaths per minute slower.

While recording respiratory rate, several other markers of respiratory problems may also be noted.

  • Is your patient or loved one uncomfortable?
  • Do the muscles in her neck tighten as she breathes? (Medical professionals call this “the use of accessory muscles” to breathe.)
  • Can you hear any wheezing or other abnormal breathing sounds?
  • Does the person's breathing seem to reflect pain or anxiety (such as the hyperventilation that can accompany severe pain or fear)?

Normal Rates in Children

Children have faster respiratory rates than adults, and the "normal" respiratory rate can vary significantly by age. The normal ranges of respiratory rates for children of different ages include:

  • Newborn: 30-60 breaths per minute
  • Infant (1 to 12 months): 30-60 breaths per minute
  • Toddler (1-2 years): 24-40 breaths per minute
  • Preschooler (3-5 years): 22-34 breaths per minute
  • School-age child (6-12 years): 18-30 breaths per minute
  • Adolescent (13-17 years): 12-16 breaths per minute

Periodic Breathing in Children

Infants usually have a much faster respiratory rate than older children, and can also exhibit a phenomenon referred to as periodic breathing. With periodic breathing a child's average respiratory rate may vary widely; she may have periods during which she breathes slower than normal followed by a few minutes of breathing much faster than normal.

The importance of periodic breathing is that while it can be frightening as a parent it is usually quite normal unless your child has other symptoms suggestive of an underlying medical condition.

Normal Rates in Adults

As with children, the respiratory rate should be measured when a person is at rest and has not just engaged in vigorous activity. In general, respiratory rates are slightly faster in women than men.

The average respiratory rate in a healthy adult is between 12 and 18 breaths per minute.

Periodic Breathing in Adults

In contrast to periodic breathing in children, another type of periodic breathing called Cheyne-Stokes breathing may be found in adults and is not normal. It may be caused by congestive heart failure, carbon monoxide poisoning, a low sodium level in the blood (hyponatremia), high altitude, or in the final stages of dying.


Normal respiratory rates in elderly people tend to be higher than those of younger adults, especially among older adults who are in long-term care facilities.

Increased Respiratory Rate

In adults, the cut-off for an elevated respiratory rate is usually considered a rate over 20 breaths per minute, with a rate of over 24 breaths per minute indicating a very serious condition (when it is related to a physical condition rather than a psychological condition such as a panic attack).

The respiratory rate is a very important vital sign. One study found that an elevated respiratory rate was a better determinant of people who were stable versus unstable than heart rate or blood pressure.


There are many causes of an increased rate, some that are related to the lungs and some that are not. The more common causes in adults are:

  • Acidosis: An increase in the acidity of the blood results in the increased production of carbon dioxide, and hence an increased rate of breathing. This can occur when a person has a condition resulting in metabolic acidosis such as with diabetes (diabetic ketoacidosis). The rapid, deep breathing seen with metabolic acidosis is referred to as "Kussmaul's respiratory."
  • Asthma: During an asthma attack, respiratory rate is often increased. Even small increases in respiratory rate can be a sign of worsening, and respiratory rate should be monitored closely if this is the case.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a common cause of a rapid respiratory rate, especially in people with a history of smoking.
  • Dehydration: Dehydration alone can result in a rapid rate of breathing.
  • Fever: An increased rate of breathing with a fever is the body's attempt to lose heat by breathing faster. This is important both because a rapid respiratory rate can be a sign of a worsening infection, and because a fever needs to be taken into account in interpreting the respiratory rate.
  • Heart conditions: An elevated respiratory rate was found in one study to be a predictor of cardiac arrest in people hospitalized with heart conditions.
  • Hyperventilation: People may breathe more rapidly in response to stress, pain, anger or during a panic attack.
  • Infections: Common and uncommon infections such as the flu, pneumonia, and tuberculosis can result in rapid breathing.
  • Lung conditions: Conditions such as lung cancer, pulmonary emboli (blood clots in the legs that travel to the lungs), and other lung diseases often raise the respiratory rate.
  • Overdoses: An overdose of aspirin or amphetamines may increase respiratory rate.


In newborns, common causes of a rapid respiratory rate include transient tachypnea of the newborn (TTN)—a mild condition—as well as conditions that are more serious, such as respiratory distress syndrome. 


In children, the most common causes of an increased respiratory rate include fever or dehydration. It's thought that respiratory rate increases in children on an average of 5 to 7 breaths per minute per degree Celsius elevation in body temperature.

In young children (less than 12 months old) this does not always prove to be the case, and children may not have an increased respiratory rate in response to fever and vice versa. When they do have an increased respiratory rate, it is usually increased on an average of 7 to 11 breaths per minute per Celsius elevation in temperature.

Conditions such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia are relatively common causes too. Children may also have causes of a rapid respiratory rate similar to adults, such as acidosis (with diabetes) and asthma.

Decreased Respiratory Rate

A lowered respiratory rate, defined as a rate of less than 12 by some, or less than 8t respirations per minute by others, can also be a sign of concern. Note, in children a decreased respiratory rate may still be high relative to adults and should be interpreted based on the average rates listed above.

Some causes of a decreased rate include:

  • Alcohol: Consumption of alcoholic beverages can decrease respiratory rate.
  • Brain conditions: Damage to the brain, such as strokes and head injuries often result in a decreased respiratory rate.
  • Metabolic: Respiratory rate can decrease in order to balance the effects of abnormal metabolic processes in the body.
  • Narcotics: Some medications such as narcotics—whether used for medical purposes or illegally—can suppress respiration.
  • Sleep apnea: With sleep apnea, people often have episodes of apnea and a decreased breathing rate mixed with episodes of an elevated breathing rate during sleep.

When to Call Your Healthcare Provider

Certainly, an abnormal respiratory rate is a reason to contact your healthcare provider, especially if you have a condition such as asthma or heart disease, as an increased respiratory rate alone can be a warning sign that should be heeded.

At the same time, healthcare professionals should be cognizant of this often ignored vital sign. One study found that measuring respiratory rate around the time of discharge from the emergency room was a very important predictor of deterioration after discharge.

A Word From Verywell

While many people think first of their pulse or blood pressure, we're learning that measuring respiratory rate is just as important if not more so. Certainly, respiratory rate can be influenced if you know your breathing rate is measured, so it's important for healthcare providers to become proficient in discreetly measuring this rate.

Both an increased and a decreased respiratory rate can be a warning sign of underlying medical conditions and should be heeded. Fortunately, wearable biosensors are being developed that will hopefully lead to increased monitoring of this important vital sign.

It's important to again emphasize the significant differences between the normal respiratory rates of adults and children. Those who care for children should familiarize themselves with these ranges, and be aware of when breathing is too fast or slow.

Was this page helpful?
13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Della torre V, Badenes R, Corradi F, et al. Acute respiratory distress syndrome in traumatic brain injury: how do we manage it?. J Thorac Dis. 2017;9(12):5368-5381. doi:10.21037/jtd.2017.11.03

  2. Cretikos MA, Bellomo R, Hillman K, Chen J, Finfer S, Flabouris A. Respiratory rate: the neglected vital sign. Med J Aust. 2008;188(11):657-9. doi:10.5694/j.1326-5377.2008.tb01825.x

  3. Whited L, Graham D. Abnormal Respirations. StatPearls Publishing. 2019.

  4. Berliner D, Schneider N, Welte T, Bauersachs J. The Differential Diagnosis of Dyspnea. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2016;113(49):834-845. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2016.0834

  5. Hill A, Kelly E, Horswill MS, Watson MO. The effects of awareness and count duration on adult respiratory rate measurements: An experimental study. Journal of Clinical Nursing. 2018. 27(3-4):546-554. doi:10.1111/jocn.13861

  6. Jafari H, Courtois I, Van den bergh O, Vlaeyen JWS, Van diest I. Pain and respiration: a systematic review. Pain. 2017;158(6):995-1006. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000865

  7. Fleming S, Thompson M, Stevens R, et al. Normal ranges of heart rate and respiratory rate in children from birth to 18 years of age: a systematic review of observational studies. Lancet. 2011;377(9770):1011-8. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(10)62226-X

  8. Lomauro A, Aliverti A. Sex differences in respiratory function. Breathe (Sheff). 2018;14(2):131-140. doi:10.1183/20734735.000318

  9. Rudrappa M, Bollu PC. Cheyne Stokes Respirations. StatPearls Publishing. 2019.

  10. Rodriguez-Molinero A, Narvaiza L, Ruiz J, Galvez-Barron C. Normal respiratory rate and peripheral blood oxygen saturation in the elderly population. Journal of the American Geriatric Society. 2013. 61(12):2238-40. doi:10.1111/jgs.12580

  11. Subbe CP, Davies RG, Williams E, Rutherford P, Gemmell L. Effect of introducing the Modified Early Warning score on clinical outcomes, cardio-pulmonary arrests and intensive care utilisation in acute medical admissions. Anaesthesia. 2003;58(8):797-802.

  12. Park S, Khattar D. Tachypnea. StatPearls Publishing. 2019.

  13. Mochizuki K, Shintani R, Mori K, et al. Importance of respiratory rate for the prediction of clinical deterioration after emergency department discharge: a single-center, case-control study. Acute Med Surg. 2017;4(2):172-178. doi:10.1002/ams2.252

Additional Reading