By| Published: July 22nd, 2016
Vital signs are measurements that help assess general physical health, offer clues to possible health problems and indicate progress towards recovery. Body temperature, blood pressure, pulse (heart rate) and respiratory rate are the 4 main vital signs. These vary with age, gender, weight and overall health.
The average body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, but the normal range is between 97.8 to 99.1 degrees Fahrenheit or slightly higher. It is measured using a thermometer placed in the mouth, anus, under the armpit or in the ear canal. Hypothermia refers to a drop in body temperature below 95 degrees Fahrenheit while any temperature that is higher than the average body temperature indicates a fever.
Being in a hot or cold environment, dehydration, drinking a hot or cold beverage, exercise, illness, infection, stress, thyroid disorders can influence body temperature. The elderly do not control body temperature as well as younger adults, which is why they may be ill without even displaying signs of a fever. Babies younger than 3 months, patients undergoing chemotherapy, immunocompromised individuals (diabetes, sickle cell disease, HIV) and those taking steroids long-term require medical attention immediately. The same holds good if the fever lasts for more than 4-5 days, is high (104° Fahrenheit) and the person has trouble breathing, looks really ill, exhibits a change in their behaviour or complains of headache or stiffness in the neck.
The systolic and diastolic pressures indicate the force of blood against the walls of the arteries. For an adult at rest, a reading less than 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) is considered healthy. A systolic pressure of 120-139 or a diastolic pressure of 80-89 refers to prehypertension and needs close monitoring. A reading of 140/90 mm Hg or higher indicates hypertension. High blood pressure (HBP) for an extended period of time can trigger atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart failure, and stroke.
A full stomach and bladder, alcohol consumption, an allergic reaction, bleeding, caffeine, cold temperatures, certain medicines, exercise, gaining or losing weight, low or high body temperature, salt intake, smoking and stress can influence blood pressure. Seek medical attention immediately if you have HBP and are experiencing one or more of the following symptoms: blood in the urine, chest pain, confusion, difficulty breathing, fatigue, irregular heartbeat, severe headache, and vision problems.
Pulse (Heart Rate)
Pulse is the number of heartbeats per minute. It varies from person to person and is lower when at rest and increases during exercise. 60 to 80 beats per minute is the normal pulse for a healthy adult at rest. Women tend to have a higher heart rate than men.
A lower than average pulse may be a sign of a heart condition. Certain medications like beta-blockers and digoxin can slow the pulse. It is also common in those who are athletic or exercise a lot. Anaemia, anxiety, dehydration, infection, shock, stress, a thyroid disorder and certain heart conditions can trigger a faster than average pulse.
Respiratory rate is the number of breaths per minute. It is 12 to 20 for an adult at rest. Anything below 12 or above 25 while resting is considered abnormal. Asthma, anxiety, congestive heart failure, drug overdose, lung disease, pneumonia and the use of narcotics can change the normal respiratory rate.
The first step in any treatment protocol is testing our vital signs. Doctors will find it extremely helpful if we know what our ‘normal’ vital signs are. Any information that we can offer them will be helpful, especially in an emergency.