Your heart rate, breathing or respiratory rate, blood pressure, and temperature are known as your vital signs. Measuring your vital signs helps your healthcare provider assess your basic bodily functions.

You may be asked to record some of your vital signs. To do so, you should understand what your vital signs mean, and how to measure them. For each measurement, the ranges that are considered normal will vary depending on your age and sex, whether you have any medical problems, and how physically fit you are.

Understanding Your Vital Signs

Heart Rate

For most adults, a normal resting heart rate is between sixty and one hundred beats per minute. If your heart rate is too high or too low, you may experience chest pain, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting.

Respiratory Rate

A normal respiratory rate for adults at rest is twelve to eighteen breaths per minute. Rapid or deep breathing, known as hyperventilation, can occur with anxiety, panic, and some medical conditions such as heart and lung problems. Symptoms of rapid breathing include breathlessness, chest pain, and bloating, as well as lightheadedness, dizziness, confusion, and numbness or tingling.

Blood Pressure

Your blood pressure measures how much force is applied to your blood vessels when your heart pumps blood through your body. Blood pressure readings are divided into two numbers. The first number is your systolic blood pressure: the maximum pressure, when your heart contracts. The second number is your diastolic blood pressure: the minimum pressure, when your heart is at rest.

Normal blood pressure is considered 120/80. High blood pressure or hypertension occurs when there is a systolic reading of 140 or greater at rest, or a diastolic reading of 90 or greater at rest. The higher the readings are, the more severe the condition is. Readings near these high values, such as 135/85, might be considered prehypertension, formerly known as "borderline hypertension."

What is considered normal can vary so talk with your healthcare provider about what a normal blood pressure is for you. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is called a silent killer because it usually has no symptoms. Low blood pressure, or hypotension, can be a sudden drop in blood pressure or blood pressure that is consistently below your normal range. Blurry vision, confusion, lightheadedness, dizziness or weakness, and fainting or unexplained sleepiness are all symptoms of hypotension.


The average normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit when measured orally. Variations between 97.8 and 99.1 degrees Fahrenheit are also considered normal.

You probably have a fever if your temperature is higher than about ninety-nine degrees Fahrenheit. The main symptom of fever is being very warm to the touch, even if you are not sweating. A fever may be accompanied by other symptoms, like achiness, sweats or chills and body shakes.

It is dangerous for your body temperature to be below ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit, a condition known as hypothermia. Early symptoms of hypothermia include drowsiness, weakness, loss of coordination, cold skin, confusion, and shivering.

Measuring Your Vital Signs

Heart Rate. You can measure your own radial pulse on the inside of your wrist. You will need a clock with a second hand. Use your middle and index fingers of the opposite hand you are checking. Do not use your thumb. Your hand and arm should be relaxed and supported in front of you. Turn the palm of your hand so that if faces upward. Follow the line of your thumb down until your reach your wrist. There are bones right below the base of your thumb, not directly in the center. Once you pass these, you will reach a small area of soft tissue. You will feel the radial pulse beating there. You might need to move your fingers around slightly to find it. Count the beats for fifteen seconds. Multiply this number by four to get your heart rate per minute.

Respiratory Rate. If you concentrate on your breathing, it will tend to slow down. You may be able to have someone measure your respiratory rate, without telling you when he or she is taking it, by counting the number of inhalations in ten seconds, and multiplying by six to get your respiratory rate per minute.

Blood Pressure. You can measure your blood pressure at home using a blood pressure monitor with a manual or automatic cuff. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco for at least thirty minutes before measuring your blood pressure. Use the restroom before taking your blood pressure, and rest for three to five minutes, without talking, before the measurement. Sit down with your arm resting on a table at the same level as your heart, with your legs uncrossed and your feet on the floor. Your upper arm should be bare-roll up your sleeve if you need to. Wrap the blood pressure cuff snugly around your upper arm, positioned with the cuff's lower edge one inch above your elbow. Follow the manufacturer's instructions to operate the monitor. Wait at least two to three minutes before repeating the measurement.

Temperature. To take your temperature, you will need a thermometer. Mercury thermometers are not recommended, because mercury is very toxic. Use a glass thermometer without mercury, or an electronic thermometer. Always clean your thermometer before use. If using a glass thermometer, grip the end opposite the bulb and shake the thermometer downward until it reads ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit or less. Wait thirty minutes after smoking, eating, or drinking a hot or cold liquid, and at least one hour after exercising strenuously or taking a hot bath, before taking your temperature. To take your temperature orally, place the thermometer under your tongue, right where it meets your lower jaw. This may be a bit uncomfortable, but not painful. Close your mouth. Breathe through your nose, and use your lips to hold the thermometer tightly in place for three minutes. If you are using an electronic thermometer, it will beep when it is time to read the thermometer.

When to Call Your Healthcare Provider

Call your healthcare provider or go to the emergency room if:

  • You experience major or unexpected changes in your vital signs
  • Changes in your vital signs are accompanied by shortness of breath, chest pain, unusual sweating, dizziness, or lightheadedness
  • You have a fever while you have a serious or chronic medical condition Your blood pressure remains high

What We Have Learned

Normal blood pressure is considered 120/80.
True or False
The answer is True.

The average normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit when measured orally.
True or False
The answer is True.

You should not use your thumb when checking your pulse.
True or False
The answer is True.