What Is Respiratory Rate?

Cindy Quarters

A respiratory rate is a measure of the speed of breathing. It is normally reported in breaths per minute. This is determined by counting how many times the subject breathes in and out in a short period, such as 15 seconds, then multiplying the answer by four to determine the respiratory rate. The number of breaths in 30 seconds may be counted instead and then multiplied by two to arrive at the total number of respirations per minute, or breaths can be counted for the full minute.

The respiratory system.
The respiratory system.

A normal respiratory rate is variable and depends on several factors. Age and health status are two of the most important of these. Respiration is fastest in infants and decreases with age. The normal breathing rate for healthy adults is anywhere from 8 to 16 breaths per minute. The respiratory rate in infants is much faster, averaging as many as 44 breaths per minute.

The respiratory and abdominal organs.
The respiratory and abdominal organs.

Animals, too, have normal rates of respiration and, as with humans, significant variations from the norm can indicate health problems. Smaller animals usually breathe faster than larger ones, but an animal in shock, such as a pet injured by a car or another animal, may breathe considerably faster. If a pet seems to be breathing excessively fast, it is best to contact a veterinarian for a complete evaluation.

Knowing a normal breathing rate can be important, as changes can signal serious problems, though this is not always true. Simple things such as anger or fear can change breathing rates, as can physical exercise. Illness often changes the respiratory rate, especially if there is lung congestion involved, such as with a cold or the flu. Many serious conditions can also affect breathing, such as asthma and heart disease, usually because the body is struggling to get enough oxygen.

It is not possible for a person to accurately measure his or her own respiratory rate, as the very act of counting causes a change in the rate, usually slowing breathing down as the person focuses on each breath. An individual who wishes to measure his or her own rate of respiration should ask a friend to count breaths for him or her when the individual is not focused on the counting. If a person has concerns about the respiration, it is best to see a medical professional for proper evaluation.

Illness that involves lung congestion often changes the respiratory rate of both infants and adults.
Illness that involves lung congestion often changes the respiratory rate of both infants and adults.

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