What Are “Vital Signs”?

Whenever you go to the doctor, you have your vitals checked, whether you’re aware of it or not.

The term “vital signs” refers to a checklist of four measurements that give a snapshot of a person’s overall health: body temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure.

But what are these measurements, and what makes them so “vital”?

Body Temperature

Body temperature is the most familiar of the four vital signs, since most of us have checked our own temperature at home when feeling sick. Normal body temperature ranges from 97.8°F (36.5°C) to 99°F (37.2°C), though it can vary depending on activity, time of day, hydration, and other variables.

High body temperature indicates infection; low body temperature indicates the inability of the body to retain enough heat. Hypothermia, a condition in which body temperature falls below 95°F (35°C), is a medical emergency.

Heart Rate

Heart rate is the frequency of heart beats, measured in beats per minute. Heart rate can be measured in a low-tech way, by counting the number of heartbeats, usually in the neck or wrist; or in a high-tech way, by using an electrocardiogram (EKG).

The normal heart rate for an adult at rest is 60 to 100 beats per minute (bpm).

A rapid heart rate, defined as a resting heart rate greater than 100 bpm, is called tachycardia. Tachycardia is a sign of heart disease, and suggests that the heart is working inefficiently, requiring it to beat too fast in an attempt to provide enough oxygenated blood to the body.

While a low heart rate generally indicates a heart that is functioning efficiently, an excessively slow heart rate, defined as a resting heart rate less than 60 bpm, signals a condition known as bradycardia. Bradycardia is only a concern if it produces symptoms, such as dizziness and fainting.

An irregular heartbeat, known as arrhythmia, suggests an electrical problem with the heart, and may or may not be symptomatic. Complications of arrhythmia include stroke and heart failure.

Respiration Rate

Respiration rate refers to the number of breaths a person takes every minute (bpm). It is measured by counting how often the chest rises in a minute. The normal respiration rate varies according to age; for an adult at rest it is between 12 and 20 bpm.

A high respiratory rate, often called hyperventilation but known medically as tachypnea, refers to a rate higher than 20 bpm. Tachypnea can signal a number of issues, including asthma, sepsis, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), congestive heart failure (CHF), or possibly a psychological cause such as anxiety.

A low respiratory rate, known as bradypnea, refers to a rate lower than 12 bpm. Bradypnea can be caused by a damaged heart, inflammatory diseases such as lupus, and can also be a side effect of medication.

Blood Pressure

Blood pressure refers to the force with which blood presses on the walls of the arteries. Although it sounds similar to heart rate, the two measures are not quite related.

Blood pressure is expressed as the pressure during a heartbeat (systolic pressure) over the pressure while the heart is at rest, between hearbeats (diastolic pressure). Normal blood pressure is 120/80 mm Hg.

High blood pressure, known as hypertension, is defined as blood pressure above 130/80. Blood pressure above 180/120 is considered severe hypertension. Hypertension is a dangerous health condition; it accounts for the most deaths per year in the United States today.

Low blood pressure, known as hypotension, is defined as blood pressure below 90/60. Unless hypotension causes symptoms, such as dizziness, fainting, or blurry vision, it is not dangerous.

Sudden drops in blood pressure are dangerous, and may be caused by severe blood loss, severe infection, or an allergic reaction. These can be life-threatening.

Beacon of LIFE, in Oceanport, NJ, is a government-approved PACE program created to provide seniors, their family, caregivers and professional health care providers the flexibility to meet their health care needs while continuing to live in their community.

Beacon of LIFE maintains an interdisciplinary team of professionals who give each client the coordinated care they need. Our staff specialize in working with older people, and work with each client and their family to develop the most effective plan of care.

Our care and services allow people who would otherwise need to live in a nursing home to live where they want — in their own communities, in their own homes.

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