Respiratory rate, one of the main vital signs of the human body, is the number of breaths taken per minute.

The normal respiratory rate for adults is 12 to 16 breaths per minute. The normal respiratory rate for children varies by age.

In this article, we’ll discuss how to measure respiratory rate, the factors that influence respiratory rate, and when to see a doctor if you’re concerned about your respiratory rate.

A normal respiratory rate in adults is roughly 12 to 16 breaths per minute. Respiratory rate is an important part of your vital signs. It can potentially indicate a more serious condition, such as cardiac arrest.

If your respiratory rate is below normal, it could indicate central nervous system dysfunction. If your respiratory rate is above normal, it could indicate another underlying condition.

Some variation in respiratory rate occurs naturally as we age. As we get older, we become more prone to diseases and organ dysfunction. Some organs are closely linked to your respiratory health and can change your respiratory rate.

The normal respiratory rate for kids varies by age.

AgeRate (in breaths per minute)
Infant (birth to 1 year) 30 to 60
Toddler (1 to 3 years) 24 to 40
Preschooler (3 to 6 years) 22 to 34
School age (6 to 12 years) 18 to 30
Adolescent (12 to 18 years) 12 to 16

Your respiratory rate can be measured in three easy steps.

  1. Set a timer for 1 minute.
  2. You should be at rest, either sitting or lying down. Avoid strenuous activity beforehand.
  3. Start the timer and measure the amount of breaths taken in 1 minute. This can be done by counting how many times the chest rises.

The most common factors that can affect your measured respiratory rate include:

  • emotional state
  • physical fitness
  • internal temperature
  • disease and health status

Respiration is the metabolic process of oxygen intake and carbon dioxide release. It’s controlled by a body system called the respiratory drive. The respiratory drive is broken down into three systems: neural central control, sensory input, and muscular effect.

The neural central control system sets the ventilation rate and air intake volume. The sensory system lets the central nervous system know how much volume and at what rate to breathe. The muscular system moves the lungs in accordance with signal inputs.

These systems work together to create a process that exchanges two types of air.

When we breath out, we release low oxygen and high carbon dioxide air. When we breath in, we take in high oxygen and low carbon dioxide air. The exchange of these elements is important for metabolic processes to continue at the cellular level.

The respiratory drive is tied closely to the central nervous system. When the central nervous system is altered or damaged, it can affect the rate of respiration.

For example, a stroke that causes brain stem damage can affect breathing. Narcotics, such as opioids, can also depress the central nervous system and affect breathing.

There are other factors outside of these that can affect your respiratory rate, as we’ll explore below.

Alcohol

Alcohol is a depressant that affects the central nervous system. The effects of alcohol continue to increase the more you consume. Roughly four to six servings of alcohol are enough to negatively impact the functioning of your central nervous system.

Narcotics

Narcotics can have a major influence on the central nervous system. Some drugs may act as a depressant, while others act as stimulants. The effects can be seen system-wide, from blood pressure to respiration rate.

Marijuana, hallucinogenics, and opioids are all known to affect respiratory rate. Deaths from opioid overdose, which claim more than 130 lives every day in the United States, are often caused by altered or dysfunctional breathing.

Metabolic issues

Hypothyroidism is caused by an underactive thyroid gland. The thyroid hormone plays an important role in many body processes, including respiration.

Hypothyroidism can weaken the muscles of the lungs, making it harder to breath. This can slow down your normal respiratory rate.

Brain injuries or stroke

According to the CDC, stroke is responsible for the deaths of 140,000 Americans each year. One of the common complications of stroke is respiratory system dysfunction.

Changes in the respiratory rate can be minor to severe, depending on the stroke. Minor respiratory changes can lead to sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea. Major respiratory disturbances can lead to more serious complications, such as the need for a breathing tube.

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition in which your breathing pattern is disrupted during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea are the two main types of this condition.

Central sleep apnea occurs when the area of the central nervous system that controls breathing doesn’t send the proper signals while you sleep. This can be caused by underlying factors, such as stroke, heart failure, or certain medications.

Fever

A fever is one of the normal reactions the body experiences when fighting an infection. There are many signs and symptoms of a fever, including hot skin, sweating, and shivering. A fever can cause an increased respiratory rate as the body attempts to cool itself down.

Dehydration

Dehydration occurs when the body doesn’t take in enough water to meet its needs.

When you’re dehydrated, decreased fluid levels become low enough to alter your levels of electrolytes. This can affect the exchange of important gases in the lungs, causing an increase in respiratory rate.

Asthma

Asthma is a condition characterized by narrow, inflamed, and mucus-filled airways. With asthma, there are times when it becomes difficult to get enough air into the lungs.

In addition, excess mucus may block the airways. This can lead to decreased access to the oxygen in the air. This can cause increased respiration as the body attempts to compensate for the lack of air exchange.

COPD and other lung conditions

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a set of conditions that are characterized by long-term lung damage. The following conditions fall under the umbrella of COPD:

Like asthma, the inflammation in the lining of the lungs with COPD makes it difficult to get enough oxygen. As the body attempts to increase oxygen consumption, respiration increases.

Heart conditions

The heart is closely tied to respiration. The role of the heart, working in conjunction with the lungs, is to circulate oxygenated blood to the vital organs of the body.

With heart disease, heart function deteriorates and it can’t pump as much blood. When this happens, your body doesn’t get the oxygen it needs and respiration increases.

Overdose

Stimulant drugs influence certain neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain. One of these neurotransmitters, norepinephrine, plays a role in respiratory rate. Overdosing on certain drugs, especially stimulants, can lead to an increased breathing rate.

Infections

Lung infections can cause inflammation of the airways and the lungs. This inflammation can make it difficult to breath. When the body is unable to take long, deep breaths, it’ll increase respiration to compensate and improve oxygen intake.

Anxiety or panic attacks

Hyperventilation is a common symptom of anxiety and panic attacks. During a panic attack, the fight-or-flight response is activated. This response prepares the body to “fight” or “flight,” and heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate all increase.

Transient tachypnea (infants)

This acute condition occurs in newborns and is characterized by fast, sometimes labored, breathing.

As newborns take their first few breaths, the fluid that was in the lungs is expelled out. When the baby can’t expel the fluid out entirely, the respiratory rate may increase to take in more oxygen.

Transient tachypnea usually clears up within a few days, but sometimes it requires extra monitoring in the hospital after birth.

If your breathing rate is low for too long, it can cause complications such as low blood oxygen, acidosis, or respiratory failure. In addition, increased or decreased respiratory rates often indicate underlying conditions that need to be treated.

If you or your child is experiencing the following symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor:

  • rapid breathing of over 20 breaths per minute in adults
  • slow breathing of under 12 breaths per minute in adults
  • a breathing rate that falls outside of normal in children
  • symptoms of asthma or a lung infection, such as coughing, wheezing, and increased mucus
  • symptoms of thyroid disorder, such as dry skin, hair changes, and fatigue

If you suspect the change in breathing is due to an overdose or poisoning, get to the closest emergency room immediately.

The normal respiratory rate of adults falls within the range of 12 to 16 breaths per minute. For children, a normal respiratory rate will depend on their age.

If you’re concerned that your breathing isn’t normal, visit your doctor. They can diagnose any other underlying conditions and causes.