What Is a Normal Respiratory Rate?

If you're having some trouble with your breathing, you may be wondering, “What is a normal respiratory rate?”

Let’s begin by talking about the normal range of respiratory rates for adults and children. Then we can explore what a change in your breathing rate may be telling you about your health.

causes of increased respiratory rate
Verywell / Jessica Olah

What the Respiratory Rate Means

The respiratory rate is defined as the number of breaths you take in a one-minute period while at rest. The normal ranges are for people at rest. Respiratory rates normally increase when you exercise.

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

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

But there are times when this system doesn’t work as well. One example is when people take narcotic medications. These medications dull the brain's response to signals from the blood. That means you may breathe less often than needed.

Head injuries and strokes are two more examples. Both can damage the respiratory center in the brain.

Recent studies suggest that knowing your respiratory rate can help your doctor predict serious medical events. Studies also suggest that respiratory rates are not measured as often as they should be. It's been coined the “ignored vital sign.”

Abnormal Respiratory Rates

Both higher and lower respiratory rates can be a sign that something is wrong in the body. Many different health conditions can cause either a rapid or a slow rate.

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

  • Bradypnea is breathing that is abnormally slow.
  • Tachypnea is an elevated respiratory rate. These fast breaths are usually shallow.
  • Dyspnea means shortness of breath. It can occur with a high, normal, or low respiratory rate.
  • Hyperpnea is breathing that is deep and labored. It may occur with or without rapid breathing.
  • Apnea means literally “no breath." It's a period where breathing stops.

The rate of breathing is separate from feeling short of breath (dyspnea). Sometimes the breathing rate affects whether or not someone feels short of breath. Other times it doesn't. It's possible to feel short of breath with rapid breathing. It's also possible to have a low respiratory rate without feeling short of breath.

Measuring Respiratory Rate

Respiratory rate is measured by counting the number of breaths a person takes in one minute. Since many factors can affect the results, it's good to understand how to measure correctly.

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 affect results. That's because people often change the way they breathe if they know they're being watched. One study found that rates taken when the patient knew they were being measured were around 2.13 breaths per minute slower.

Nurses handle this problem by discreetly counting breaths. They watch the number of times your chest rises and falls—often while pretending to take your pulse.

If you're taking a respiratory rate, look for these other signs of a breathing problem:

  • Is your patient or loved one uncomfortable?
  • Do the muscles in the neck tighten as they breathe? In medical terms, this is called “the use of accessory muscles” to breathe.
  • Can you hear wheezing or other abnormal breathing sounds?
  • Does the breathing seem to reflect pain or anxiety, such as the hyperventilation that can come with severe pain or fear?

Normal Rates in Children

Children breathe more quickly than adults, and what's "normal" varies by age. Here's a breakdown of the rate ranges for children:

  • 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 breathing rate than older children. They can also have what's called periodic breathing. With periodic breathing, a child's average respiratory rate speeds up and slows down. They may have periods during which they breathe slower than normal followed by a few minutes of breathing much faster than normal.

Periodic breathing can be frightening for a parent. But it's usually normal unless your child has other symptoms of an underlying medical condition.

Normal Rates in Adults

A respiratory rate should be measured when a person is at rest, not after intense activity. In general, breathing 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

When adults have periodic swings in breathing rates, it can be a sign of a health problem. One type of periodic breathing in adults is called Cheyne-Stokes breathing. It's not considered normal. It may be caused by:

  • Congestive heart failure
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Low sodium level in the blood (hyponatremia)
  • High altitude
  • Final stages of dying

Elderly

Normal respiratory rates in elderly people tend to be higher than those of younger adults. That's especially true among older adults in long-term care facilities.

Increased Respiratory Rate

In adults, a breathing rate over 20 breaths per minute is usually considered elevated. A rate over 24 breaths per minute indicates a very serious condition. It may be less serious when the higher rate is because of a psychological condition such as a panic attack.

The respiratory rate is a very important vital sign. One study found that the respiratory rate was a better way to determine whether someone is high risk than heart rate or blood pressure.

Adults

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

  • Acidosis: When the acid level in the blood goes up, so does the amount of carbon dioxide. That's why the breathing rate spikes. This can occur with metabolic conditions like diabetes (diabetic ketoacidosis). The rapid, deep breathing is referred to as "Kussmaul's respiration."
  • Asthma: During an asthma attack, breathing rates often go up. Even small increases in can be a sign of worse breathing problems. It's important to keep a close eye on breathing rates.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a common cause of rapid breathing. It's often present in people with a history of smoking.
  • Dehydration: Dehydration can speed up your breathing.
  • Fever: When you have a fever, your body tries to cool you off by breathing faster. Rapid breathing may mean an infection is getting worse. It's important to consider fever if you're measuring a breathing rate.
  • Heart conditions: People with heart failure and other heart conditions often have elevated breathing rates.
  • Hyperventilation: People may breathe more rapidly when they feel stress, pain, anger, or panic.
  • Infections: Flu, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other infections can cause fast breathing.
  • Lung conditions: Conditions such as lung cancer, pulmonary emboli (blood clots in that travel to the lungs), and other lung diseases often raise the respiratory rate.
  • Overdoses: An overdose of aspirin or amphetamines may speed up breathing.

Newborns

In newborns, common causes of a rapid respiratory rate include transient tachypnea of the newborn (TTN)—a mild condition. It can also be caused by more serious problems such as respiratory distress syndrome

Children

In children, the most common causes of an increased breathing rate include fever and dehydration. Some say that for every degree Celsius the body temperature rises, the breathing rate increases five to seven breaths per minute.

In children less than a year old, this does not always prove to be the case. Children with a fever may not breathe faster, and vice versa. When they do have a jump in breathing rate, it usually goes up an average of seven to 11 breaths per minute per degree Celsius.

Conditions such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia are common causes. Acidosis and asthma can quicken breathing rates in children, too.

Decreased Respiratory Rate

Some experts define a low respiratory rate as less than 12 breaths a minute. Others say it's less than eight. A low breathing rate is often cause for concern.

Make sure to use the rate ranges for children when you're counting a child's breaths, and use the adult ranges for adults.

Some causes of a lower rate include:

  • Alcohol: Drinking alcohol can slow your breathing rate.
  • Brain conditions: Damage to the brain, such as strokes and head injuries, often lead to slower breathing.
  • Metabolic: Respiratory rate can slow down 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 slow breathing.
  • Sleep apnea: With sleep apnea, breathing can stop altogether, slow down, or speed up as you sleep.

When to Call Your Healthcare Provider

If your breathing rate changes, it's a good reason to contact your healthcare provider. This is especially true if you have a condition such as asthma or heart disease. An increased respiratory rate alone can be a warning sign.

If you're a healthcare professional, pay close attention to this often-ignored vital sign. One study found that measuring respiratory rate around the time of discharge from the emergency room helped to predict problems after discharge.

Summary

Your respiratory rate is the number of breaths you take in one minute. Adults typically breathe at a slower rate than children.

Your respiratory rate is an important measurement because many health conditions, some of them serious, can change how fast or slow you breathe. When your breathing rate changes, it may mean your body isn't getting enough oxygen.

Fever, dehydration, and infection can all speed up your breathing. So can long-term health conditions like asthma, COPD, and heart problems. Alcohol, medications, sleep apnea, brain injuries, and metabolic issues can all slow your breathing.

If you notice changes to your respiratory rate, talk to a healthcare professional. You may be dealing with a health condition that needs treatment.

A Word From Verywell

Pulse and blood pressure may be the first measurements you think of when it comes to your health. But respiratory rate is just as important if not more so. When your breathing slows or speeds up, it can be a warning sign of changes in your body.

It's important to know the difference between normal rates for adults and children. If you care for children, be familiar with their ranges so you can tell when breathing is too fast or slow.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you measure respiratory rate?

    Try to get the person being measured to relax so that the measurement can be as accurate as possible. Use a timer set for one minute to keep track of the time and count the number of times the chest rises and falls for one minute.

  • What are the other vital signs?

    Aside from respiratory rate, the other vital signs are body temperature, blood pressure, and pulse. The average body temperature is 98.6 degrees F but it can vary. Average blood pressure and pulse are 120/80 mm Hg and 60 to 80 beats per minute, respectively.

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