Knowing Your Vital Signs is Important

Anytime you go to the doctor, typically the first things that he/she begins to measure are your vital signs.

Do you know what vital signs are and what the normal range for an average adult should be? Vital signs are used to measure the body’s basic functions. These measurements are taken to help assess the general physical health of a person, give clues to possible diseases, and show progress toward recovery. The normal ranges for a person’s vital signs vary with age, weight, gender, and overall health. There are 4 main vital signs: body temperature, blood pressure, pulse (heart rate), and breathing rate.

Temperature – the baseline for the body’s core temperature at which it functions under normal conditions. The body and its systems are constantly burning energy and temperature is tightly controlled. This process is called thermoregulation. The average adult temperature is approximately 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The purpose for checking body temperature is to check for an increased temperature; which is an indication that the body is fighting and infection. Any temperature that is higher than a person’s average body temperature is considered a fever. A drop in body temperature below 95 degrees Fahrenheit is defined as hypothermia. Remember, temperature can vary due to factors other than illness or infection. Stress, dehydration, exercise, being in a hot or cold environment, drinking a hot or cold beverage and thyroid disorders can also influence body temperature. Because older adults do not control body temperature as well as younger adults, older adults may be ill without ever displaying signs of a fever.

Pulse/Heart Rate – the expansion/contraction of an artery and is typically measured on the body at the wrist or ankle. The measure is counted in beats per minute and the average for an adult is 50-80 beats per minute. A normal pulse rate for a healthy adult at rest ranges from 60 to 80 beats per minute. Women tend to have faster pulse rates than men. A faster than average pulse can indicate such health problems as infection, dehydration, stress, anxiety, a thyroid disorder, shock, anemia or certain heart conditions. A lower than average pulse may also be a sign of a heart condition. Some medications, especially beta blockers and digoxin, can slow your pulse. A lower heart rate is also common for people who get a lot of exercise or are athletic.

Blood Pressure – consists of two readings, a high systolic reading (which occurs when the heart contracts) and a lower diastolic reading (which occurs when the heart is at rest). Blood pressure is the measurement of the pressure or force of blood against the walls of your arteries. Blood pressure is written as 2 numbers, such as 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). A normal reading for an adult would be 120 systolic over 80 diastolic. A systolic pressure of 120-139 or a diastolic pressure of 80-89 is considered “prehypertension” and should be closely monitored. Hypertension (high blood pressure) is considered to be a reading of 140/90 mm Hg or higher. Blood pressure that remains high for an extended period of time can result in such health problems as atherosclerosis, heart failure, and stroke. Keep in mind that the blood pressure stations often available at drug stores and grocery stores are not considered accurate measures of your blood pressure.

Respiratory Rate – the process of breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide is called respiration. The average respiratory rate for an adult is 16-20 breaths per minute. A person’s respiratory rate is the number of breaths you take per minute. The normal respiration rate for an adult at rest is 12 to 20 breaths per minute. A respiration rate under 12 or over 25 breaths per minute while resting is considered abnormal. Among the conditions that can change a normal respiratory rate are asthma, anxiety, pneumonia, congestive heart failure, lung disease, use of narcotics, or drug overdose.

In addition to the basic four primary vital sign readings, doctors typically also include readings for height and weight as a measure for general health and BMI (Body Mass Index).

Height is measured in inches with your shoes removed. Height is monitored for infants/toddlers/adolescents to ensure they are on the correct growth curve. For adults, height is monitored as an indication for bone loss during the beginning stages of osteoporosis.

Weight is measured in pounds and determines total body weight. This number can be used in conjunction with your height to determine your BMI (Body Mass Index), which can determine on a general scale, if one is underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese. Keep in mind that the BMI does not calculate muscle weight vs. fat weight.

It is important to understand that they are called vital signs for a good reason…

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one. Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. A health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics, Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics. Listen to Glenn every Saturday at 9 a.m. EST on www., and Sundays at 8:30 a.m. EST on For more good health information, go to


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