The Science of Human Breathing – How Many Breaths per Minute Is Average for an Adult?

Your respiratory rate, or the number of breaths per minute, is one of the four vital signs. The others are blood pressure, body temperature, and pulse. Each vital sign, including the respiratory rate, is associated with a number or range which is considered normal/healthy.

With this in mind, you should know that the measurements may vary depending on a person’s sex, weight, age, and a few other factors. In this article, we’ll answer the question of how many breaths per minute is average for an adult. Then, we will outline the causes of a higher or lower respiratory rate.

Children’s normal respiratory rate differs from adults, and the article explores this as well.

Breathing 101

As you inhale, oxygen goes into your lungs and moves to your organs. Exhaling releases carbon dioxide from your body, allowing for an optimal balance between the two gasses. But how many breaths per minute is average for an adult to reach this balance?

Assuming you are resting and in perfect health, the normal adult breathing rate ranges from 12 to 20 breaths every 60 seconds. At this tempo, your body releases carbon dioxide as soon as it gets produced. A lower or higher number may indicate a breathing disorder or an underlying health issue.

Children’s Respiratory Rate

Children’s average respiratory rate keeps changing until they reach adulthood. Infants (up to 12 months old) have a normal respiratory rate of between 30 and 60 breaths per minute. Toddlers (no more than 3 years old) take between 24 and 40 breaths in a minute.

The numbers are similar for preschoolers (3 – 6 years of age) and they range between 22 and 34 breaths every 60 seconds. Until they reach their teens, schoolchildren usually take 18 to 30 breaths every minute. The number drops to between 12 and 16 for teens (12 -18 years of age).

Measuring the Respiratory Rate

Determining the number of breaths per minute is pretty straightforward even if you are not a medical professional. However, there are a few things you should know to ensure you get the right number.

First, the respiratory rate needs to be measured while a person is resting. This means you should avoid taking their respiratory rate immediately after physical activity, and that includes walking.

Additionally, people may inadvertently change their breathing pattern if they know it’s being measured. Due to this, it’s best to discretely observe and count the breaths without notifying your loved one. Ask them to do the same for you if you’re interested in your own breathing pattern.

Nurses sometimes employ a neat trick and pretend to be taking the patient’s pulse or other vitals while they are actually measuring the respiratory rate. To get the right number, you should closely look at the person’s chest movement and use a stopwatch.

Indicators to Look for

If a person is uncomfortable, his or her respiratory rate is likely to increase. Look for a tightening in the neck while taking the measurement, since it may indicate a respiratory disruption. Wheezing or other strange sounds usually show that there’s an underlying condition that affects the breathing apparatus.

What Does the Measurement Show?

Simply put, the respiratory rate shows how frequently one’s brain sends a signal to tell the body it’s time to breathe. The brain relays the signal more frequently if there’s a high carbon dioxide level or low oxygen level.

For example, an infection may heighten the carbon dioxide production, even though oxygen levels are normal. To release excess gas, the brain pushes the body to breathe more.

However, there are certain narcotic medications that can disrupt normal brain signals. They might numb the brain’s responses, causing a person to breathe less frequently. Hyperventilation, or an extremely high breathing rate, might be triggered by pain or severe anxiety.

Causes of Abnormal Respiration Rate

Under normal circumstances, the brain automatically regulates breathing as a response to physical activity, excitement, or fear. The rate quickly reverts to normal once a person calms down or rests. But there are a few medical conditions that can cause people to regularly breathe faster or slower.

High Respiration

  1. Cardiovascular problems– Your heart cannot get a sufficient amount of oxygen if it is pumping irregularly. This leads to a higher respiration rate.
  2. Dehydration – As your body tries to supply a sufficient amount of energy to dehydrated cells, your breathing becomes faster.
  3. Fever – A raised bodily temperature impacts the respiration rate. By making you breathe more, your brain attempts to help you deal with the excess heat.
  4. Lung diseases – Needless to say, different respiratory conditions like COPD, pneumonia, and asthma speed up the breathing pattern.

Low Respiration

  1. Substance abuse – Narcotics (illegal or medical) can significantly lower the respiration. In some cases, an overdose can cause a person to stop breathing altogether and may lead to death.
  2. Sleep apnea – People who suffer from this sleep condition experience episodes of low and high respiration.
  3. Alcohol – Excessive consumption of alcohol is yet another self-inflicted cause of low respiration.
  4. Metabolic processes – To balance out any abnormal metabolic activity, the brain might tell your body to slow down your breathing.
  5. Brain damage – A stroke or other forms of brain damage can also result in low respiration.

Note: Feeling short of breath (dyspneic) may or may not be associated with abnormal respiratory rate.

When Is the Time to See a Doctor?

Mild changes in the respiratory pattern are no cause for concern. But if you’re experiencing hyper- or hypoventilation accompanied by other symptoms (like fatigue, a sore throat, or a fever), you should seek medical help.

Should the symptoms include bluish skin, gurgling while breathing, or chest pain, a visit to the emergency room is a must. The same goes when the breathing rate becomes dangerously low.

Take a Deep Breath and Relax

In this day and age, stress is among the most common factors that can cause a perfectly healthy individual to struggle with breathing. On the bright side, you should be able to deal with an abnormal stress-induced respiratory rate with simple relaxation exercises.