What Are “Vital Signs”?

Vital SignsThe term “vital signs” refers to a checklist of four measurements that give a snapshot of a person’s overall health. These measurements are body temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure. Vital signs are usually checked during every medical exam.

Body Temperature

Body temperature is the most familiar of the four vital signs, since most homes have a thermometer that measures it. Normal body temperature fluctuates, depending on activity, time of day, hydration, and other variables, including gender. However, normal body temperature ranges from 97.8°F (36.5°C) to 99°F (37.2°C).

A high body temperature suggests an infection, whereas low body temperature occurs when the body loses more heat than it can absorb. Hypothermia, when the body temperature falls below 95°F (35°C) is a medical emergency.

Heart Rate

Heart rate refers to the number of times the heart beats per minute. Heart rate is measured with an electrocardiogram (EKG), but it can also be measured by counting the number of beats, usually in the neck or wrist.

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

An excessively fast 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 not working efficiently, causing it to beat too frequently and provide less oxygenated blood to the body.

While a low heart rate is generally indicative of a heart that is functioning very efficiently, an excessively slow heart rate, defined as a resting heart rate less than 60 bpm, signals a condition known as bradycardia. Bradycardia can result in dizziness and fainting. Bradycardia is only a concern if it is symptomatic.

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 can be measured by simply counting the number of times 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, known as tachypnea, refers to a rate higher than 20 bpm in an adult at rest. It is often referred to as hyperventilation. A slow respiratory rate Tachypnea can signal a number of issues, including sepsis, pneumonia, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), congestive heart failure (CHF), and even anxiety.

A low respiratory rate, known as bradypnea, refers to a rate lower than 12 bpm in an adult at rest. Bradypnea can because by damage to heart tissue, inflammatory diseases such as lupus, and is sometimes a side effect of medications.

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 only loosely related.

Blood pressure is expressed as the pressure during a heartbeat (systolic pressure) over a measure of the pressure while the heart is at rest (diastolic pressure). A normal blood pressure is 120/80 mm Hg.

High blood pressure, known as hypertension, is defined as blood pressure above 130/80. If blood pressure is above 180/120, it is considered severe hypertension. Hypertension is a dangerous health condition, and its complications account 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. Hypotension is not dangerous unless it causes symptoms. Common symptoms of hypertension include dizziness, fainting, and blurry vision. 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.

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