Everything you need to know about vital signs
By Talitha Basinski, MSN-Ed., RN
At some point in your life you have likely had a healthcare worker tell you they need to take your vital signs. What are vital signs and what makes them so… vital…?
Vital signs are the measurements that tell us how your body is doing. These include temperature, pulse, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and oxygen saturation. So what do each of these tell us about the body?
A normal temperature is 98.6 F. In an adult, anything over 100.4 is considered a fever. Fevers are the body’s way of fighting off infection naturally. High temperatures can seem scary to people, but how high a fever is has nothing to do with how sick someone is. The body generally tolerates temperatures up to 105F fairly well, although temperatures that high may cause the person to hallucinate or become dehydrated. Typically fevers that result from infection don’t go higher than 105 and can be managed with over the counter medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Temperatures that are over 105 are usually the result of genetic conditions triggered by medications or by exposure to high temperatures (heat stroke).
Every time your heart contracts, or beats, it causes your arteries to expand and then relax. This is known as your pulse. Another term for pulse is heart rate. In an adult a pulse is 60 to 100 beats per minute (bpm). Healthy people, particularly those who are active, may have lower pulse rates. Things like activity, caffeine, or fevers may raise a person’s pulse over 100 bpm. An irregular pulse or a pulse rate over 100 may indicate that the heart rhythm is abnormal. An electrocardiogram (ECG/EKG) would be needed to determine this.
A normal blood pressure is less than 120/80. The first number is the systolic blood pressure, which is the pressure in the arteries when the heart is squeezing. The second number is the diastolic blood pressure, which is the pressure in the arteries when the heart is relaxed. Other than poor health, blood pressure can be influenced by pain, anxiety, and medications. To be diagnosed with high blood pressure your primary healthcare provider must measure a blood pressure over 130/80 on two separate visits with no other obvious cause (such as pain). A blood pressure that is high over a long period of time can damage your blood vessels, leading to problems like strokes (brain attacks) or kidney failure. A blood pressure that is too low on the other hand can cause the body’s important organs not to get enough blood flow. This might make you dizzy or pass out.
How many times we breathe in and out each minute is our heart rate. A normal respiratory rate is 16 to 20 times per minute for adults. Fevers, pain, and low oxygen levels may cause someone to breathe faster. Medications like narcotics can cause you to breathe slower.
Oxygen is required by our body in order to function. It is carried around the body on something called hemoglobin, which is part of our red blood cells. To measure the level of oxygen in our blood we can use a device called a pulse oximeter. This device is placed on the finger or toe and measures how much oxygen is attached to the hemoglobin. While these devices are generally quite accurate, they can be confused by dark nail polish or bright lights in the room. Oxygen saturation should be 94-98% in a healthy person. People with certain lung diseases, such as COPD, may have lower levels and need oxygen. If our oxygen saturation drops too low, our body is not able to get the oxygen it needs to work and will shut down. This is known as respiratory arrest and is a life threatening emergency. Would you like to learn more about vital signs? Our Medical Assistant program has more indepth education on vital signs, including how to take someone’s vital signs. Enroll today or email us for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org