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What are Vital Signs?

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  • Written By: Jillian O Keeffe
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2016
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Vital signs are the basic indicators of health in medicine. There are four essential vital signs — temperature, pulse, breathing, and blood pressure. The measurement of vital signs gives important information to medical professionals about a patient's health. Unusual vital signs can point to the existence of major or minor disease, a chronic illness, or the worsening of an existing disease. Vital signs, under non-emergency conditions, are checked when the patient is sitting down and relaxed.

Temperature is usually measured using an oral thermometer, but thermometers can also be placed in the ear, the anus or the armpit. A normal temperature is 98.6° Fahrenheit (37° Celsius) using an oral thermometer. An oral temperature of more than 101° Fahrenheit (38° Celsius) means the patient has a fever. Rectal temperatures are higher than oral temperatures, but rectal measurements also are the most accurate of all the temperature-taking methods.

A pulse reading is taken by placing the index and middle fingers over a major artery or by listening directly to the heart. The most convenient way to do this is to use the radial artery on the wrist. A doctor or nurse will count beats for 15 seconds and multiply this by four to get a measurement of beats per minute. A normal adult pulse produces from 60 to 100 beats in a minute. An irregular pulse is common but also could indicate heart problems.

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A patient's breathing should also be measured. Such as measurement counts breaths per minute, and medical professionals can do this while taking a pulse. The normal range of breaths is from 12 to 20 breaths a minute. An abnormal number of breaths could indicate lung disease.

Blood pressure is measured using a blood pressure cuff, which wraps around a patient's upper arm and is inflated. The cuff measures blood pressure in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). A normal blood pressure is less than 90 mm Hg for diastolic pressure and less than 140 mm Hg for systolic pressure.

Diastolic pressure is the pressure produced when the heart is at rest and systolic pressure is the pressure produced when the heart beats. The blood pressure readings are taken from either arm. In emergency situations, a low systolic pressure indicates the patient is going into shock. The common condition of hypertension, or high blood pressure, is diagnosed when the systolic pressure is above 140 mm Hg and the diastolic pressure is above 90 mm Hg.

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