Most of us have heard of vital signs or checking vitals at one point or another, and these are the go-to indicators that are used to assess basic functions of the body that are essential for our survival.  They cover heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and temperature, and they normally fall within a specific range that is used as a baseline in assessing overall health.  Let’s take a closer look at how these measurements are taken and what they can tell us.


Checking the pulse is how the heart rate is measured, and it is most commonly checked by pressing against a vein in the wrist, one of the carotid arteries in the neck, a vessel in the armpit, ankle or where the upper thigh meets the crotch.  It is usually pressed for 30 seconds as the beats are counted and multiplied by two to ascertain how many times the heart beats per minute.  A normal heart rate falls within 80-100 beats per minute in an adult who is not engaging in strenuous activity.  Rapid heart rates in the context of survival are usually indicative of stress, fear, blood loss and heat exhaustion.


Adults normally take between 10-20 breaths per minute when not under stress, and breaths are normally deep and consistent.  They are usually observed by watching and counting how many times the chest rises and falls over the course of a minute.  Rapid and slow breathing can be indicative of shock, respiratory ailments, panic or serious problems in the circulatory system that inhibit the transport of oxygen through the body.  Abnormal breathing can also be an indicator of a drug overdose as well.


The most-common places to take a temperature are in the mouth, anus, armpit, ear or temple.  Normal temperatures range from 97.8 to 99.1 degrees, and anything outside of this range is indicative of an underlying problem.  Temperatures that drop below 95 degrees or above 104 degrees are considered to be life-threatening.  Monitoring temperatures over time is very useful in helping to determine whether someone is either recovering or getting worse from whatever ailment they are experiencing.

Blood Pressure

The blood pressure is checked by using air in a sleeve wrapped around the upper arm to exert pressure on blood vessels until the flow of blood is temporarily impeded.  A stethoscope is used to listen to the flow of blood just above where the sleeve is placed.  When the sleeve is squeezed, the person taking the blood pressure will listen for when the sound of blood moving through the vessels stops.  They will look at the gauge and write down the corresponding number followed by a slash.  The next step is to release pressure in the sleeve until the sound of blood flowing resumes, and this number will be written below the slash.

Normal blood pressure readings in adults will fall below 120/80.  Top numbers that exceed 140 and bottom numbers that exceed 90 are considered to be dangerous.  Numbers below 110 and 70 respectively are equally as dangerous.  Stress, blood loss, exposure to heat or cold, the presence of drugs, stimulants or severe illness and heart failure are common causes of abnormal blood pressure readings.  High blood pressure can lead to heart attacks and strokes whereas low blood pressure can result in chronic fatigue, poor circulation, low body temperatures, coma and death.

While understanding what normal ranges in vital signs are is a simple and effective way to identify problems or measure whether someone’s condition is improving or getting worse, they do not tell us exactly what’s wrong.  Consequently, it’s important to be able to establish cause and effect relationships based on the situation at hand.  It’s also important to know basic first aid in order to determine how to address problems and stabilize the patient in an emergency.  Take time to practice taking vital signs as well as becoming familiar with how to deal with various problems in the field.  Developing these skills can be invaluable and life-saving when access to medical services may not be available at the time.