Vital signs (often shortened to just vitals) are a group of the 4 to 6 most important signs that indicate the status of the body’s vital (life-sustaining) functions. These measurements are taken to help assess the general physical health of a person, give clues to possible diseases, and show progress toward recovery.[1][2] The normal ranges for a person’s vital signs vary with age, weight, gender, and overall health.[3]

There are four primary vital signs: body temperature, blood pressure, pulse (heart rate), and breathing rate (respiratory rate), often notated as BT, BP, HR, and RR. However, depending on the clinical setting, the vital signs may include other measurements called the "fifth vital sign" or "sixth vital sign". Vital signs are recorded using the LOINC internationally accepted standard coding system.[4][5]

Early warning scores have been proposed that combine the individual values of vital signs into a single score. This was done in recognition that deteriorating vital signs often precede cardiac arrest and/or admission to the intensive care unit. Used appropriately, a rapid response team can assess and treat a deteriorating patient and prevent adverse outcomes.[6][7][8]

Primary vital signs

There are four primary vital signs which are standard in most medical settings:

  1. Body temperature
  2. Heart rate or Pulse
  3. Respiratory rate
  4. Blood pressure

The equipment needed is a thermometer, a sphygmomanometer, and a watch. Though a pulse can be taken by hand, a stethoscope may be required for a patient with a very weak pulse.


Temperature recording gives an indication of core body temperature which is normally tightly controlled (thermoregulation) as it affects the rate of chemical reactions. Body temperature is maintained through a balance of the heat produced by the body and the heat lost from the body.

Temperature can be recorded in order to establish a baseline for the individual's normal body temperature for the site and measuring conditions. The main reason for checking body temperature is to solicit any signs of systemic infection or inflammation in the presence of a fever (temp > 38.5 °C/101.3 °F or sustained temp > 38 °C/100.4 °F), or elevated significantly above the individual's normal temperature. Other causes of elevated temperature include hyperthermia.

Temperature depression (hypothermia) also needs to be evaluated. It is also noteworthy to review the trend of the patient's temperature. A fever of 38 °C is not necessarily indicate an ominous sign if the patient's previous temperature has been higher.


The pulse is the rate at which the heart beats while pumping blood through the arteries, recorded as beats per minute (bpm). It may also be called "heart rate". The pulse is commonly taken at the wrist (radial artery). Alternative sites include the elbow (brachial artery), the neck (carotid artery), behind the knee (popliteal artery), or in the foot (dorsalis pedis or posterior tibial arteries). The pulse rate can also be measured by listening directly to the heartbeat using a stethoscope. The pulse varies with age: a newborn or infant can have a heart rate of 130–150 bpm, a toddler of 100–120 bpm, an older child of 60–100 bpm, an adolescent of 80–100 bpm, and an adult of 50–80 bpm.

Respiratory rate

Varies with age, but the normal reference range for an adult is 16–20 breaths per minute.[9] The value of respiratory rate as an indicator of potential respiratory dysfunction has been investigated but findings suggest it is of limited value. Respiratory rate is a clear indicator of acidotic states, as the main function of respiration is removal of CO2 leaving bicarbonate base in circulation.

Blood pressure

The blood pressure is recorded as two readings: a high systolic pressure, which occurs during the maximal contraction of the heart, and the lower diastolic or resting pressure. A normal blood pressure would be 120 being the systolic over 80, the diastolic. Usually the blood pressure is read from the left arm unless there is some damage to the arm. The difference between the systolic and diastolic pressure is called the pulse pressure. The measurement of these pressures is now usually done with an aneroid or electronic sphygmomanometer. The classic measurement device is a mercury sphygmomanometer, using a column of mercury measured off in millimeters. In the United States and UK, the common form is millimeters of mercury, whilst elsewhere SI units of pressure are used. There is no natural 'normal' value for blood pressure, but rather a range of values that on increasing are associated with increased risks. The guideline acceptable reading also takes into account other co-factors for disease. Therefore, elevated blood pressure (hypertension) is variously defined when the systolic number is persistently over 140–160 mmHg. Low blood pressure is hypotension. Blood pressures are also taken at other portions of the extremities. These pressures are called segmental blood pressures and are used to evaluate blockage or arterial occlusion in a limb (see Ankle brachial pressure index).

Other signs

In the U.S., in addition to the above four, many providers are required or encouraged by government technology-in-medicine laws to record the patient's height, weight, and body mass index.[10] Unlike the traditional vital signs, these measurements are not useful for assessing acute changes in state because of the rate at which they change; however, they are useful for assessing the impact of prolonged illness or chronic health problems.

The definition of vital signs may also vary with the setting of the assessment. EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians), in particular, are taught to measure the vital signs of: respiration, pulse, skin, pupils, and blood pressure as "the 5 vital signs" in a non-hospital setting.[11]

Fifth vital signs

The "fifth vital sign" may refer to a few different parameters.

Sixth vital signs

There is no standard "sixth vital sign"; its use is more informal and discipline-dependent than the above.

Variations by age

Reference ranges for blood pressure
Stage Approximate age Systolic Diastolic
Range Typical example Range Typical example
Infants 1 to 12 months 75-100[28] 85 50–70[28] 60
Toddlers 1 to 4 years 80-110[28] 95 50–80[28] 65
Preschoolers 3 to 5 years 80-110[28] 95 50–80[28] 65
School age 6 to 13 years 85-120[28] 100 55–80[28] 65
Adolescents 13 to 18 years 95-140[28] 115 60–90[28] 75

Children and infants have respiratory and heart rates that are faster than those of adults as shown in the following table:

Age Normal heart rate
(beats per minute)
Normal respiratory rate
(breaths per minute)
Range[29] Typical example Range[30] Typical example
Newborn 100–160[31] 130 30–50 40
0–5 months 90–150 120 25–40 30
6–12 months 80–140 110 20–30 25
1–3 years 80–130 105 20–30 25
3–5 years 80–120 100 20–30 25
6–10 years 70–110 90 15–30 20
11–14 years 60–105 80 12–20 16
15–20 years 60–100 80 12–30[citation needed] 20


An anesthetic machine with integrated systems for monitoring of several vital parameters, including blood pressure and heart rate.

Monitoring of vital parameters most commonly include at least blood pressure and heart rate, and preferably also pulse oximetry and respiratory rate. Multimodal monitors that simultaneously measure and display the relevant vital parameters are commonly integrated into the bedside monitors in critical care units, and the anesthetic machines in operating rooms. These allow for continuous monitoring of a patient, with medical staff being continuously informed of the changes in general condition of a patient.

While monitoring has traditionally been done by nurses and doctors, a number of companies are developing devices which can be used by consumers themselves. These include Scanadu and Azoi.

See also


  1. ^ "Vital Signs". 
  2. ^ http://www.emergencycareforyou.org/VitalCareMagazine/ER101/Default.aspx?id=500
  3. ^ "Vital Signs Table - ProHealthSys". 
  4. ^ "Logical Observation Identifiers Names and Codes". 
  5. ^ "LOINC - A Lingua Franca Critical for Electronic Medical Records and Health Information Exchange". 
  6. ^ National Early Warning Score Development and Implementation Group (NEWSDIG) (2012). National Early Warning Score (NEWS): standardising the assessment of acute-illness severity in the NHS. London: Royal College of Physicians. ISBN 978-1-86016-471-2. 
  7. ^ National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Clinical guideline 50: Acutely ill patients in hospital. London, 2007.
  8. ^ "Acute care toolkit 6: the medical patient at risk: recognition and care of the seriously ill or deteriorating medical patient" (PDF). Royal College of Physicians of London. May 2013. 
  9. ^ (RCP 2012)[clarification needed]
  10. ^ "What should I include when I record vital signs of my patients for MU? - Providers & Professionals - HealthIT.gov". 
  11. ^ Emergency Care, 11th edition, pp. 226–244.
  12. ^ http://www.va.gov/painmanagement/docs/toolkit.pdf
  13. ^ Lorenz, Karl A.; Sherbourne, Cathy D.; Shugarman, Lisa R.; Rubenstein, Lisa V.; Wen, Li; Cohen, Angela; Goebel, Joy R.; Hagenmeier, Emily; Simon, Barbara; Lanto, Andy; Asch, Steven M. (1 May 2009). "How Reliable is Pain as the Fifth Vital Sign?". J Am Board Fam Med. 22 (3): 291–298. doi:10.3122/jabfm.2009.03.080162. PMID 19429735 – via www.jabfm.org. 
  14. ^ "Tips From Other Journals - American Family Physician". 
  15. ^ Mularski RA, White-Chu F, Overbay D, Miller L, Asch SM, Ganzini L (2006). "Measuring pain as the 5th vital sign does not improve quality of pain management". J Gen Intern Med. 21: 607–12. doi:10.1111/j.1525-1497.2006.00415.x. PMC 1924634Freely accessible. PMID 16808744. 
  16. ^ http://www.pain-initiative-un.org/doc-center/en/docs/The%20Fifth%20Vital%20Sign%20Implementation.pdf
  17. ^ American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2015). "Menstruation in girls and adolescents: using the menstrual cycle as a vital sign. Committee Opinion No. 651". Obstet Gynecol. 126: 143–6. 
  18. ^ American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Adolescence, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Committee on Adolescent Health Care. (2006). "Menstruation in Girls and Adolescents: Using the Menstrual Cycle as a Vital Sign". Pediatrics. 118 (5). 
  19. ^ Mower W, Myers G, Nicklin E, Kearin K, Baraff L, Sachs C (1998). "Pulse oximetry as a fifth vital sign in emergency geriatric assessment". Acad Emerg Med. 5 (9): 858–65. doi:10.1111/j.1553-2712.1998.tb02813.x. PMID 9754497. 
  20. ^ Mower W, Sachs C, Nicklin E, Baraff L (1997). "Pulse oximetry as a fifth pediatric vital sign". Pediatrics. 99 (5): 681–6. doi:10.1542/peds.99.5.681. PMID 9113944. 
  21. ^ Neff T (1988). "Routine oximetry. A fifth vital sign?". Chest. 94 (2): 227. doi:10.1378/chest.94.2.227a. PMID 3396392. 
  22. ^ "Mining Vital Signs from Wearable Healthcare Device via Nonlinear Machine Learning". University of Hull. Retrieved 2016-05-14. 
  23. ^ Vardi A, Levin I, Paret G, Barzilay Z (2000). "The sixth vital sign: end-tidal CO2 in pediatric trauma patients during transport". Harefuah. 139 (3–4): 85–7, 168. PMID 10979461. 
  24. ^ Holcomb JB, Salinas J, McManus JM, Miller CC, Cooke WH, Convertino VA (2005). "Manual vital signs reliably predict need for life-saving interventions in trauma patients". J Trauma. 59: 821–8; discussion 828–9. doi:10.1097/01.ta.0000188125.44129.7c. PMID 16374268. 
  25. ^ Bierman A (2001). "Functional Status: The Sixth Vital Sign". J Gen Intern Med. 16 (11): 785–6. doi:10.1111/j.1525-1497.2001.10918.x. PMC 1495293Freely accessible. PMID 11722694. 
  26. ^ "Nursing care of dyspnea: the 6th vital sign in individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)". National Guideline Clearinghouse. 
  27. ^ Studenski S, Perera S, Wallace D, et al. (2003). "Physical performance measures in the clinical setting". J Am Geriatr Soc. 51 (9): 314–322. doi:10.1046/j.1532-5415.2003.51104.x. PMID 12588574. 
  28. ^ a b c d e f g h i j PEDIATRIC AGE SPECIFIC, page 6. Revised 6/10. By Theresa Kirkpatrick and Kateri Tobias. UCLA Health System
  29. ^ Emergency Care, Page 214
  30. ^ Emergency Care, Page 215
  31. ^ Vorvick, Linda. "Pulse". MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved 23 January 2011.