Vital Signs: Temperature, Blood Pressure, Pulse, Respiration, and Measurements
Vital Signs: Significance, Normal values, and Measurements
Did you know that your body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate (pulse) and breathing rate (respiration) are very important measurements of your life-sustaining functions? They are called vital signs in medicine because they reveal the status of our life-sustaining functions. In times of health concerns, the four vital signs listed above are the mostly monitored signs in patients. Urine output is also monitored in certain cases. In clinical settings, healthcare providers normally take the vital signs as the first step to detecting medical problems in a patient. Vital signs are also used to monitor patient’s medical problems or response to treatments.
Who Can Take or Measure Vital Signs?
Vital signs can be measured anywhere, ―hospitals or in any kind of health settings, home, school, camp ground, or anywhere a medical emergency occurs. Since vital signs enable us to detect health concerns and do not require a high level of expertise knowledge, people other than health professionals should also possess the knowledge and know how to measure them, against a situation where a health care provider cannot be present quickly enough.
Normal Ranges (Values)
Body Temperature: 36.5°C to 37.3°C (97.8°F to 99.1°F) & average 37°C (98.6°F)
Pulse/Heart rate: 60 to 100 beats per minute
Respiratory rate (breathing): 12 to 20 breaths per minute
Blood pressure: 90/60 mm/Hg to 120/80 mm/Hg
How to Take/Measure Vital Signs
Body Temperature (T)
Our body temperature can go lower (hypothermia) or higher (fever) outside the normal range. Factors that can cause changes in our temperature include exercise, the food and drink we consume (cold or hot), time of day, infection and stage of menstrual cycle (in women).
Temperature is measured with thermometer.
Taking Temperature by Mouth (oral):
- Keep from eating or drinking for at least five minutes. Temperature of food/drink cuases body temperature to change.
- Get an oral thermometer.
- Wash your hands with soap and warm water.
- Wash the thermometer in cold water, clean with ‘rubbing alcohol’ & rinse in water to remove alcohol.
- Shake the thermometer to let the mercury inside drops below the 36°C (96.8°F) mark on the body.
- Place tip of thermometer under the tongue and hold firm in the spot for about 40 seconds with the lips close (Don’t press teeth against device)
- Watch for maximum temperature/reading obtainable, usually comes with a beeping sound.
- Treat your reading as required, treat your thermometer as in step 3 above.
Taking Temperature by the Ear:
- Get a Tympanic thermometer
- Clear the ear of any wax or debris (to enable accuracy of device)
- Clean the thermometer with alcohol
- Place a new probe tip (‘throw-away cover’) on the tip of the thermometer as its manual directs
- Gently tug on the ear and pull it up and backward to straighten the ear canal for the thermometer to going in easily to the ear drum
- Carefully insert the device into the ear canal till it seals off the canal
- Press and hold down the button and wait to hear a beeping noise which comes with a temperature reading on the window of the thermometer.
- Note the temperature value, remove device carefully, discard the ‘throw-away cover’, treat your result as required, keep device as directed by manufacturer.
Taking Temperature Under the Arm (axillary):
- Get an oral thermometer.
- Clean the thermometer with cold, soapy water and rinse.
- Shake the thermometer to let the mercury inside drops below the 36°C (96.8°F) mark on the body
- Place the tip of the thermometer in the centre of the armpit.
- Make sure the arm is tucked snugly against the body as shown the picture.
- Leave the thermometer in place for at least 4 minutes.
- Remove the thermometer, read the temperature and clean the device.
Note: readings from the different parts of the body may not be the same as temperature may vary with parts of our body and also depends on the sensitivity of thermometer used but any reading outside the normal range should be reported for professional advice.
Pulse (Heart rate): Number of times the heart beats within a minute. You can feel it on the wrist (radial pulse) just under the thumb, in the neck or in the elbow.
How to Measure Heart Rate (Pulse)
- Put your first and second fingertips on the wrist, in the elbow or in the neck beside the voice-box
- Press firmly but gently on the arteries until you can feel a beat (pulse)
- Look your watch or clock with your mind fixed at the beats (pulse), start counting when the thinnest hand of the clock/watch (second’s hand) is on the ‘12’ and count for 1 minute
- Take note of your count and compare the value with the normal range (60-100)
How to Measure Blood Pressure
- Get a blood pressure machine & the cuff
- Push the on/off button to turn on the machine
- Position the arm properly and wear the cuff round the upper arm as shown
- Push the ‘start/stop’ button to inflate the cuff and wait for the figures to display
- Note and compare your readings with the normal values/range
- Remove the cuff, turn off device and clean and keep in a safe place
Note: a reading of 140/90 mm Hg or higher is indicative of hypertension (high BP) and any readings outside the normal range should be reported to your health care giver.
High blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack (heart failure) and stroke (brain attack).
Respiratory Rate (Breathing Rate)
How to Measure Respiratory Rate
- Set the person in a resting position
- Watch for ‘up & down’ movement of the chest (you may feel it with hand)
- Be sure the person does not have any difficulty breathing
- Count the number of times the chest rises within a minute
- The number of breaths you take within a minute is the respiratory
Note: Any count below 12 or above 20 for an adult at rest is out of the normal range and should be reported to your health care provider for professional guidance.
Factors that can influence respiratory rate include asthma, use of narcotics, drug overdose, anxiety, lung disease, pneumonia or congestive heart failure.
Author: Peter A. Aroniyo
How to take a child’s temperature. (2000). Paediatrics & Child Health, 5(5), 277–278.
Oxford Concise Medical Dictionary. 7th Edition, 2007.
The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. How to Take Your Temperature.
Truven Health Analytics Inc. How to Take an Ear Temperature.
Vital Signs (Body Temperature, Pulse Rate, Respiration Rate, Blood Pressure) Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library.