What Are Your Vital Signs?

BP. O2. PR. Temp. You hear medical shorthand thrown around all the time on your favorite hospital dramas on television, but have you ever wondered exactly what all those abbreviations stand for? Many times, they are simply vernacular for a patient’s vital signs.

Vital Signs

When it comes to measuring the body’s most basic functions, vital signs are the foundation for any comprehensive medical evaluation. What exactly are your vital signs?

  • Body Temperature
  • Respiration Rate
  • Pulse Rate

In addition to those, blood pressure and oxygen saturation levels are also commonly taken though they are not explicit vital signs. These key measurements serve as frontline indicators for whether a person is in medical distress or not. Vital signs can be taken at home with the right equipment, or in a medical setting like a doctor’s office or hospital.

Don’t miss this quick guide to understanding each vital sign:

Body Temperature

Did you know that the internal body temperature of a person can vary depending on their sex, activity levels, the food they ate that day, and even the time of day? Most often, however, steep spikes in body temperature can indicate an infection which is why this vital sign is a staple of diagnosis.

In healthy adults, normal body temperatures can actually range all the way from 97.8° F (36.5° C) to 99° F (37.2° C), though most people are taught that 98.6° F (37° C) is the common average. When a body temperature reading exceeds 99° F, you enter low-grade fever territory, and anything over 101° F is typically cause for alarm if it is accompanied by distressful symptoms like chills, pain, nausea, vomiting, etc.

Fevers up to 103° F are actually safe for most adults and can assist the body in warding off unwanted pathogens like infectious viruses or bacteria. On the flipside, any temperature under 95° F (35° C) indicates hypothermia, a dangerous loss of body heat that can negatively affect organ, heart, and brain function.

Record temperature readings with accurate thermometers that can measure body temperature via the skin on the forehead, the ear, armpit (axillary), under the tongue (orally), or in the rectum. Axillary temperatures are commonly 0.3 to 0.4° F lower than oral temperatures, while rectal readings are 0.5 to 0.7° F higher.

Respiration Rate

The number of breaths you take in a minute equals your respiration rate; for healthy adults, a normal respiration rate will be between 12 and 16 breaths per minute. Typically no special equipment is needed to measure respiration rates; simply tracking the rise and fall of a patient’s chest over a timed minute when they are at rest provides the necessary information.

An increase or decrease in respiration can accompany a fever, illness, or other medical condition which requires attention. When gauging respiration rate, medical professionals will also observe any difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.

Pulse Rate

Sometimes confused with blood pressure, the pulse rate is specifically the measurement of how many times your heart beats in a minute. Pulse rate can be taken by pressing two fingers (forefinger and middle finger together) to a major artery like the one at the base of your wrist (thumb side), on the side of your neck, or on the inside of your elbow.

As the heart pumps blood throughout your circulatory system, your arteries expand and contract with each pump. Gently feeling for this arterial expansion and counting the number of ‘thumps’ in a minute can indicate both pulse rate as well as heart rhythm and the strength of your pulse.

A normal pulse rate varies widely for adults – from 60 to 100 beats per minute, averaging around 80. Pulse rate is affected by age, sex, activity levels, medical condition, injury, even emotional state. Both a rapid and a slow pulse rate can serve as a warning sign that medical attention is needed.

Blood Pressure

While your pulse rate measures the number of heart beats you have per minute, it’s your blood pressure that tracks the actual force of the blood your heart is pumping throughout your body’s arteries. When the heart beats, it first contracts, pushing blood out of the heart into the arteries. The heart then rests, relaxing the arteries and filling once more with blood. The force of the initial contraction serves as your systolic pressure reading (the top number in a blood pressure level), and the force of your blood when the heart is at rest serves as the diastolic pressure reading (the bottom number).

A normal blood pressure reading will be at or below 120/80 mmHg. New guidelines from the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiologists support an updated blood pressure matrix that qualifies any systolic reading between 121 and 130 (with diastolic still under 80) as an “elevated blood pressure” and readings above 130/80 falling into first and second categories of hypertension.

A dramatic drop or increase in blood pressure can indicate potentially life-threatening medical complications like infection or injury which is why most medical practitioners use it as a vital sign. You can monitor your own blood pressure at home with a digital arm or wrist cuff, or have it taken by a medical professional with a sphygmometer, cuff, and stethoscope.

Oxygen Saturation Levels

For people with respiratory issues or infections (like pneumonia), measuring oxygen saturation levels helps to track how much oxygen is making its way into the lungs and therefore the bloodstream. O2 levels are measured with simple digital devices that slide over a finger and use light waves to measure the oxygen in the blood. Normal O2 levels range between 95 and 100; O2 levels under 90 can indicate respiratory distress.

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