Many factors, including age and activity levels, affect a person’s respiratory rate. Adults usually take between 12 and 20 breaths per minute, but children tend to breath faster. Some health issues — such as anxiety, a fever, or heart problems — can cause breathing rates to speed up.

The respiratory rate is the number of breaths someone takes every minute. It 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 in the body.

This article looks at the normal respiratory rates in adults and children. It also discusses the causes of high or low respiratory rates and when a person should contact a doctor.

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Although the normal respiratory rate can vary slightly between individuals, there is a range that doctors and nurses consider usual. The following table outlines normal respiratory rates based on age:

AgeBreaths per minute
birth to 1 year old30–60
1–3 years old24–40
3–6 years old22–34
6–12 years old18–30
12–18 years old12–16
over 18 years old12–20

The authors of a 2021 article state that children have a higher respiratory rate than adults. Once a child reaches the age of 2, the respiration rate reduces from 44 breaths per minute to 26.

The normal respiratory rate for healthy adults is between 12–20 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 the normal breathing processes.

It is essential to measure a person’s respiratory rate at rest to determine whether it is normal. Exercise or even walking across a room can affect it.

According to Johns Hopkins, the respiration rate refers to the number of breaths a person takes in one minute. 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.

Breathing relies on the coordination of the control center in the brain and the respiratory muscles. An area at the base of the brain controls breathing. The brain sends signals from the brain to the breathing muscles.

Sometimes, the body needs to adjust the breathing rate. Receptors in the brain detect low oxygen or high carbon dioxide levels 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.

Various factors affect a person’s breathing rate, including injuries, exercise, emotion, mood, and a range of medical conditions.

Doctors refer to a high respiration rate of more than 20 breaths per minute as tachypnea.

Common causes of high respiration rates include:

Other causes of high respiration rates include allergic reactions and diabetic ketoacidosis.

Doctors refer to a low respiratory rate of fewer than 12 breaths per minute as bradypnea. This can occur as a result of a worsening of an underlying respiratory condition.

It can also occur as a result of airway obstructions and cardiac arrest.

Other causes include:

  • A drug overdose: The use of alcohol and other central nervous system depressants, such as narcotics and benzodiazepines, 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 the relaxation of the soft tissues in the throat. The blockage causes brief pauses in breathing and may decrease the overall respiratory rate.
  • Head injury: Head injuries can affect the area in the brain that plays a role in breathing, which may cause a decrease in the respiration rate.

Learn more about bradypnea here.

A mild variation from the 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 the respiratory rate is very abnormal or a person has signs of infection such as fever, fatigue, or a sore throat, they may benefit from consulting a doctor.

People with lung diseases, such as emphysema, asthma, and chronic bronchitis, may also want to contact 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
  • cyanosis, when the skin turns blue
  • gurgling sounds during breathing
  • taking very few breaths per minute

A child may require urgent medical treatment if:

  • they have severe breathing difficulties
  • they are exhausted from trying to breathe
  • the muscles under their ribs suck in with each breath
  • they are grunting when breathing out
  • an adult cannot wake the child
  • they have woken up but are very drowsy and will not stay awake
  • their breathing stops for more than 20 seconds, or there are regular short pauses in their breathing while they are awake
  • their skin turns very pale or blue
  • the inside of their lips and tongue turn blue
  • they have had a fit for the first time

A person may also wish to seek immediate medical care for a child if their breathing rate increases to the following:

  • Infants between 2 months to 1 year old: More than 50 breaths per minute.
  • Children aged 1–12: More than 40 breaths per minute.
  • Children over 12 years old: More than 20 breaths per minute.

The outlook of a person with a low or high respiratory rate depends on the underlying cause.

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 the respiratory rate to determine whether or not it is abnormal. In some instances, an abnormal breathing rate can indicate an underlying medical issue.

A person’s respiratory rate is the number of breaths they take per minute. This can vary from person to person. However, a normal breathing rate should fall within a specific range.

The normal breathing rate for an adult is 12–20 breaths per minute. The normal breathing rate for children varies depending on their age.

A high or low respiratory rate may be a sign that an underlying issue is present.

Common causes of a high respiratory rate include anxiety, fever, respiratory diseases, heart diseases, and dehydration.

Common causes of a low respiratory rate include drug overdoses, obstructive sleep apnea, and head injuries.

If a person is experiencing an abnormal breathing rate, they should contact a doctor.

A person should seek immediate medical help if they experience an abnormal breathing rate combined with chest pain, bluish skin, gurgling sounds during breathing, or breathing very few breaths per minute.

Read this article in Spanish.