Vital Signs

Vitals are the body’s most basic measurements of health. These include body temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure.

Measuring and tracking your vital signs is a critical part of any healthcare appointment. It gives your healthcare provider clues about any underlying conditions and shows progress toward recovery.

Measuring and recording vital signs is a skill that takes time to master. Learn the procedures, steps and risks involved in taking your vitals.

Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is the force of blood against the walls of your arteries. It’s measured with a stethoscope, usually in two numbers: systolic and diastolic. The systolic number indicates the pressure during the heart’s contraction, and the diastolic number is the pressure when the heart relaxes between beats. Normal blood pressure is less than 120 mm Hg systolic and less than 80 mm Hg diastolic. Blood pressure that’s higher than 180/120 mm Hg is considered a hypertensive emergency or crisis and requires immediate medical help.

While blood pressure and heart rate are commonly correlated, they each have distinct roles in the body and can respond to different factors in unique ways. Cardiologist Luke Laffin explains some of the differences between these vital signs — and busts some myths along the way.

Heart Rate

At most healthcare appointments, your heart rate and blood pressure are measured simultaneously. Even if you use an electronic cuff at home, you may find that the numbers are often similar or overlap. Both numbers are important to know but play different roles in your health.

Your heart rate, or pulse, is the number of times your heart beats in one minute. It is generally higher when you are active or stressed and lower when resting, calm and relaxed. It can also be measured by feeling the pulsation of your artery (or taking your pulse). To feel your heartbeat, place the pads of your fingers on the outside of your wrist or neck, and press down gently. Find the artery and count how many beats you can feel in 15 seconds and multiply that by 6.

Changes in your heart rate, whether it is high or low, may be a sign of certain health issues. If you notice any changes, talk with your primary care provider.

Respiratory Rate

The speed and pattern of breathing is one of the vital signs that help us stay healthy. When we inhale, oxygen enters the bloodstream and reaches the rest of the body; carbon dioxide leaves during exhalation. Changing rates can indicate disease or injury.

It is normal for adults to take between 12 and 20 breaths per minute at rest. Children’s rates vary by age. Generally, if your rate increases suddenly, it is a sign that you need medical attention. This is called tachypnea.

You can measure your respiratory rate by sitting down and counting the number of times your chest rises in a minute while you are at rest. It is important to be as relaxed as possible while you count. If you feel too stressed or anxious to accurately measure your own rate, ask someone else to do it for you. A fast rate can indicate a dangerous illness or injury. It can also lead to high heart rates and a rapid increase in blood pressure.


Body temperature is a vital sign that helps to identify fevers, hyperthermia and hypothermia. It is often taken orally using a classic glass thermometer or digitally with an electronic probe. It can also be taken rectally (under the arm) although results tend to be slightly lower.

Taking a patient’s vital signs can be done by a wide variety of healthcare professionals including EMTs, paramedics, doctors, nurses and even some Dental Assistants. The measurements are quick, relatively painless and can provide significant insight into the patient’s physical state. They are a vital first step in any medical exam and are used to triage patients when they attend emergency departments or urgent care clinics. Regularly monitoring your vital signs will help you understand what a normal reading is for your body, which may inspire you to make healthier lifestyle changes. The more you know about your body, the better. Early action leads to more successful treatment.

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