• Respiratory rate is the number of breaths taken per minute.
  • In adults, the normal respiratory rate is roughly 12 to 20 breaths per minute.
  • In children, the normal respiratory rate varies by age.

Respiratory rate is one of the main vital signs of the human body. It refers to the number of breaths you take in one minute.

The speed, pattern, and depth of your breaths indicate how well your body is working to deliver oxygen to all your vital organs and tissues.

Normal respiratory rate in a healthy adult is about 12 to 20 breaths per minute.

Your respiratory rate can be affected by many different factors such as alcohol consumption, sleep apnea, infections, or heart conditions.

Read on to learn more about why respiratory rate is important, how to measure it, what affects it, and when to see a doctor.

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 can be broken down into three systems:

  • Neural central control: The neural central control system sets the ventilation rate and air intake volume. This affects exhalation, inhalation, and breathing pattern.
  • Sensory input system: The sensory system sends information back to the central nervous system to indicate how much volume and at what rate to breathe. It also recognizes chemical changes such as irritants.
  • Muscular system: The muscular system moves the lungs in accordance with signals from the other systems. It controls the mechanics of breathing.

These systems work together to create a process that exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide.

When we breathe out, we release low oxygen and high carbon dioxide. When we breathe in, we take in high oxygen and low carbon dioxide. 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 also other factors that can affect your respiratory rate, as we’ll explore further in this article.

A normal respiratory rate in healthy adults is roughly 12 to 20 breaths per minute. Your respiratory rate is an important vital sign. It can potentially indicate a more serious condition, such as cardiac arrest.

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

Some variation in respiratory rate may occur with aging. As we get older, we become more prone to certain health conditions. Changes to your respiratory health or other organ systems can change your respiratory rate.

The normal respiratory rate for children varies by age.

AgeRate (in breaths per minute)
Birth to 6 months30 to 60
6 months to 1 year30 to 50
1 to 3 years24 to 40
3 to 5 years22 to 34
5 to 12 years 16 to 30
12 to 18 years12 to 20

Your respiratory rate can be measured in three steps:

  1. Set a timer for 1 minute.
  2. Sit or lie down to get yourself in a state of rest. 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 your chest rises.

Sometimes focusing on trying to count your own breaths can cause feelings of stress. These feelings can affect your respiratory rate. If this is the case, you can ask a family member or friend to count your breaths for 1 minute. They should do this while you’re relaxed and focusing on something else.

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

  • emotional state
  • physical fitness
  • internal temperature
  • your health status and any other conditions you may have

In some cases, a doctor or nurse may use sensors or other diagnostic tools to check your respiratory rate.


Alcohol is a depressant that affects your central nervous system. The effects of alcohol continue to increase the more you consume.

Alcohol poisoning slows your breathing and heart rate, which can contribute to life threatening complications.


Opioids have a depressant effect on the central nervous system. The effects can be seen system-wide, from blood pressure to respiration rate.

Deaths from opioid overdose, which claim as many as 68,630 lives every year in the United States, are often caused by altered or dysfunctional breathing.


Other medications also act as central nervous system depressants, which means they can slow your respiratory rate.

These mediations include:

Combining these medications with each other, or with other depressant substances such as alcohol or opioids, can lead to life threatening side effects.

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 breathe. This can slow down your normal respiratory rate.

Brain injuries or stroke

Each year, 795,000 people have a stroke in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One common complication 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.

In some cases, these respiratory changes are temporary and may improve with ongoing recovery from stroke.

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 does not send the proper signals while you sleep. This can be caused by underlying factors, such as stroke, heart disease, or certain medications.


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


Dehydration occurs when your body does not take in enough water to meet its needs.

When you’re severely dehydrated, low fluid levels can lead to a range of serious complications. These complications can speed up your breathing rate.


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 your lungs.

This can cause increased respiration as your body attempts to compensate for the lack of air exchange.

COPD and other lung conditions

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

With COPD, damage or irritation in the lining of the lungs makes it difficult to get enough oxygen. As your 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 your body.

With heart disease, heart function deteriorates and it cannot pump as much blood. When this happens, your body does not get the oxygen it needs and respiration increases.


Stimulants include many common ADHD medications. These drugs act on certain neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain. In turn, stimulants can have a range of effects in the body.

When taking stimulants, one potential side effect is an increased breathing rate.


Lung infections can cause inflammation of the airways and the lungs. This inflammation can make it difficult to breathe. When your body is unable to take long, deep breaths, it makes your breathing faster to try to get more oxygen.

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 flee, and heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate can 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 their lungs is expelled out. When the baby cannot expel the fluid out entirely, the respiratory rate may increase to take in more oxygen.

Transient tachypnea requires treatment in hospital, but with treatment, it usually clears up within a few days.

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 or your child is struggling to breathe, or you suspect the change in breathing is due to an overdose, poisoning, or medical emergency, get emergency medical help right away.

Vital signs are measurements of your body’s basic functions. They’re called “vital” because they reflect the most important functions needed to sustain life.

Every medical evaluation starts with measuring these signs. This helps healthcare professionals determine the care and treatment you need.

Respiratory rate is one of the four vital signs. The other three vital signs are:

Body temperature

Your body needs to stay at a certain temperature to support its basic functions. In a healthy adult, body temperature is around 98.6°F (37°C), but it can range between 97.7°F to 99°F (36.5°C to 37.2°C).

Body temperature is affected by conditions such as fever, when body temperature increases due to infection, and hypothermia, when your body temperature becomes too low. When your body temperature is too high or too low, your body’s basic systems cannot function effectively.

To measure your temperature, you’ll need to use a thermometer. Digital thermometers that take measurements from the mouth, armpit, or rectum are commonly available. Each device is different, so it’s important to follow the instructions on your thermometer carefully.

Blood pressure

Blood pressure measures the force of your blood pushing against your artery walls when your heart beats and contracts. Healthy blood pressure for adults is considered to be 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or less.

High blood pressure is known as hypertension. It can be caused by many different factors, such as age and certain health conditions.

Low blood pressure is known as hypotension. It can be caused by situations like standing up quickly, or health conditions such as a heart attack.

High blood pressure can lead to health complications, and in some cases the same is true of low blood pressure.

Your doctor or a nurse will typically measure your blood pressure during a routine health check. If your doctor recommends it, you can also use a measuring cuff to check your blood pressure at home.

Pulse rate

Your pulse rate, or heart rate, is the number of times your heart beats in one minute. In adults, the healthy range is 60 to 100 beats per minute.

The speed and pattern of your pulse rate provide an indication of your heart rhythm and how well your heart is pumping blood.

Slow, fast, or irregular heart rate is called arrhythmia. It can be caused by medications, high blood pressure, or other factors.

Your doctor can measure your heart rate during a simple physical exam, or they may use diagnostic tools like an electrocardiogram. You can also measure your heart rate at home by counting your pulse for 15 seconds, then multiplying that number by 4 to get your heart rate.

The normal respiratory rate of adults falls within the range of 12 to 20 breaths per minute. For children, a normal respiratory rate will depend on their age.

If you’re concerned that your breathing is not typical, visit your doctor. They can diagnose any other underlying conditions and causes.

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