Respiratory Rates in Adults and Children: What's Normal?
Your respiratory rate is the number of breaths you take in a minute.
As you know, breathing is essential. When you breathe in, you bring oxygen into your body; your lungs and heart then help deliver that oxygen to all your cells. When you breathe out, you exhale carbon dioxide, a waste product that can be dangerous if it builds up in the body.
Breathing faster or slower than usual typically indicates bodily stress or strain. Your breathing quickens when you exercise because your body needs more oxygen than usual to fuel your activity. Similarly, your respiratory rate may speed up when you’re sick. A significantly slower-than-normal respiratory rate can signal a health crisis.
Knowing the normal range of respiratory rates for adults and children can help you determine when to seek medical care.
Vital Signs, Explained
Healthcare workers generally track four or five numerical “vital signs” that reveal a lot about the body’s overall health and well-being. Respiratory rate is one of the four traditional vital signs. The others include temperature, blood pressure and heart rate, or pulse (how many times the heart beats per minute). Some clinicians consider “pain” the fifth vital sign and routinely assess patients’ pain levels when measuring vital signs.
Because your vital signs are affected by physical activity and emotional stress, healthcare providers try to check “vitals,” as they are sometimes called, while patients are still and relaxed. If you want to check your own respiratory rate, sit comfortably in a chair, and simply count the number of breaths you take in a minute. (You can either set a timer or watch a clock while you’re counting.) One breath = one inhale and one exhale.
Normal Respiratory Rate for Adults
The normal respiratory rate for healthy adults is 12 to 16 breaths/minute. Your respiratory rate will be higher with physical exertion and slower at rest. Your rate will probably be slower during sleep than during the day.
Respiratory rates stay relatively consistent throughout the adult life span. However, lung function decreases slightly with age. Many older people also have medical conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or heart failure, which can affect the body’s ability to effectively exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. As a result, healthcare providers aren’t too alarmed by respiratory rates of 20 or 24 breaths/minute, especially if the individual does not seem distressed.
Faster-than-normal breathing is called tachypnea. Common causes of tachypnea include fever, infection, bleeding, and illness or disease. Some medications can also affect respiratory rate.
Slower-than-normal breathing is called bradypnea. An underactive thyroid gland can cause bradypnea. So can heart disease. Opioid medication and alcohol can also slow breathing—in some cases, fatally.
Pediatric Respiratory Rates
Children have a higher respiratory rate than adults, and very young children have higher respiratory rates than older children. From birth to age 6 months, 30 to 60 breaths/minute is considered a healthy respiratory rate. As the lungs and body mature, breathing becomes more efficient, so the child doesn’t need as many breaths per minute to bring in enough oxygen and expel carbon dioxide.
Normal respiratory rates for children by age are as follows:
- Birth to 6 months 30 to 60 breaths/min
- 6 to 12 months 24 to 30 breaths/min
- 1 to 5 years 20 to 30 breaths/min
- 6 to 11 years 12 to 20 breaths/min
- 12 to 17 years 12 to 18 breaths/min
Respiratory rate is just one factor to consider when evaluating a child’s overall health. Don’t fret if your child is breathing a bit faster or slower than the norm, as long as the child otherwise seems comfortable. Watch for increased work of breathing. If your child seems like he’s struggling to breathe, or if you notice the skin between his ribs retracting with each breath, call your healthcare provider immediately. Always call 911 if difficulty breathing comes on suddenly or is accompanied by chest pain or pressure; nausea or vomiting; fainting; rash or hives on the skin; bluish coloring in the lips, fingernails or skin; rapid heart rate; loss of consciousness (even if brief); and sudden swelling of the lips, tongue or face.