Respiratory rates change based on many health and activity factors. Normal respiratory rates also differ in adults and children.
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.
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 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
To determine whether a person’s respiratory rate is normal, it is essential to measure it at rest. Remember, exercise or even walking across a room can affect a person’s respiratory rate.
To take an accurate measurement, watch the person’s chest rise and fall. One complete breath comprises one inhalation, when the chest rises, followed by one exhalation, when the chest falls.
To measure the respiratory rate, count the number of breaths for an entire minute or count for 30 seconds and multiply that number by two. .
An area at the base of the brain controls breathing. The brain sends signals from the brain to the breathing muscles. Breathing mostly occurs automatically, which means a person does not have to think about it.
Sometimes, the body needs to adjust the breathing rate. Receptors in the brain detect low oxygen or high carbon dioxide and send signals to the body, which can change the breathing rate.
Having an abnormal respiratory rate can indicate a variety of things. In some cases, a high or low respiratory rate is due to an activity, such as exercise, and is not an indication that there is anything wrong.
Sometimes, however, various diseases, injuries, and substances can lead to a change in breathing. In a medical setting, an abnormal respiratory rate, especially if it is too fast, can indicate a health problem.
One study involving over 15,000 people who had visited the emergency department, indicated that a high respiratory rate was a predictor of worsening medical problems after discharge. People who had a higher breathing rate returned to the hospital more often than those with a normal breathing rate.
There are various factors that affect a person’s breathing rate, including injuries, exercise, emotion, mood, as well as a range of medical conditions.
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.
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.
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.
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.