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Respiratory Rate for COPD Patients: What is Normal?

 Normal Respiratory rate

Respiratory rate refers to how many breaths you take per minute. If you are wondering about normal breathing rate and how many breaths per minute is healthy, it is helpful to know that there is a normal respiratory rate range. The normal respiratory rate for adults at rest is 12 to 20 breaths per minute. At this normal respiratory rate, the body is able to exhale carbon dioxide at the same rate that it is produced by the body. When your breathing rate goes higher or lower than the normal respiratory rate, your normal breathing rate and process is disrupted. 

Any respiratory rate under 12 breaths per minute that is considered bradypnea (breathing too slow) and anything over 20 breaths per minute is considered tachypnea (breathing too fast). In COPD, many patients may notice that their breathing rate is often increased, and they may find themselves thinking, “How many breaths per minute is a normal breathing rate for me?” The fact is, people with COPD may take more normal breaths per minute than other people, which is due to a number of factors. So, what respiratory rate is normal for someone with COPD and when does an increased respiratory rate spell trouble? Let’s look for some answers below.


COPD is a disease that affects many parts of your body, the muscles included. Initially, your COPD symptoms may be mild; in the early stages, your symptoms may even be unnoticeable or regarded as something other than a serious illness. As the disease progresses, shortness of breath and fatigue become troublesome, affecting your ability to complete normal daily activities. Oftentimes, patients avoid physical exercise because it increases their respiratory rate and worsens their breathlessness. However, prolonged inactivity causes muscle deconditioning, which greatly affects physical activity, leading to worsening symptoms, including increased breathlessness

normal respiratory rate

Thus begins an endless cycle of avoiding activity because of worsening symptoms, and worsening symptoms due to avoiding activity. This cycle must be broken or your condition will deteriorate faster

How do you fix it? The answer is both simple, and counterintuitive: With exercise.

Exercise improves breathlessness and helps you control your breathing rate, allowing you to return more easily to a normal respiratory rate more often. Initially, if you are unable to exercise on your own while maintaining a normal respiratory rate (or a respiratory rate that is normal for you), ask your doctor for a recommendation to a pulmonary rehabilitation program. Whether you begin an exercise program on your own or participate in pulmonary rehab, start slowly. Be aware of your normal respiratory rate when you are at rest, and make a note of your normal breaths per minute. Depending on your health, you may need to start extremely slowly, but the goal is to work your way up to exercising 30 minutes a day, 4 times a week while still maintaining a manageable respiratory rate.[1]

If you have COPD, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting any type of exercise program. They can tell you how slowly you should begin and what your personal normal respiratory rate should be, compared to the standard normal respiratory rate for adults.

Respiratory Rate and Anxiety

Imagine breathing through a straw, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. According to some people, this is what it feels like to have COPD. The inability to catch your breath is downright frightening and often leads to anxiety. As breathlessness increases, so, too, does anxiety, which often leads to hyperventilation (rapid breathing) and panic. Like the activity/inactivity cycle mentioned above, the breathlessness cycle must also be broken to achieve better control of your breathlessness, your respiratory rate and your anxiety. Breathing exercises, including pursed lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing, help you learn to breathe more effectively and more efficiently, which can help you return to a normal respiratory rate and break the cycle of breathlessness. However, you must practice them daily so you know how to use the techniques properly when you start to feel out of control.[2]

 Acute Exacerbation of COPD

Under most circumstances, you are not going to be hospitalized because of rapid breathing due to activity or anxiety. However, if your respiratory rate is significantly fast or slow, especially in conjunction with other symptoms, it may be a good idea to seek medical attention. If you have COPD, however, you should take changes in your respiratory rate seriously. You could be hospitalized for a COPD exacerbation, particularly if it causes a dangerous increase in your respiratory rate. A COPD exacerbation is a period of time when COPD symptoms worsen. Worsening breathlessness, increased respiratory rate, coughing and mucus production and a change in the color and consistency of your mucus are all symptoms of severe COPD exacerbation. During a severe exacerbation, you could experience:

  • a body temperature of > 101.3°F (38.5°C)
  • a respiratory rate of > 25 breaths per minute
  • a heart rate of 110 or more.[3] 

This is not normal. If the exacerbation worsens or goes untreated, you could be hospitalized to get immediate help for your breathing and to make sure that you can return to a normal respiratory rate. Under certain conditions, you may even be put on a breathing machine to rest your lungs and help you breathe better. If you experience any of the COPD exacerbation symptoms mentioned above, including a higher than normal respiratory rate, it is important that you visit your doctor as soon as possible or go to the nearest emergency room. Earlier treatment leads to improved chances of survival.1

If you do not have COPD and you think your normal respiratory rate is too fast or too slow, try measuring your normal breaths per minute. To measure your respiratory rate accurately, make sure you are at rest either sitting or lying down, and then count your breaths for a full minute. It may be helpful to have someone else count your breaths for you. If your normal breathing rate, or how many breaths per minute is normal for you, is faster or slower than the normal respiratory rate described above, be sure to visit your primary care provider for a thorough physical.

Frequently Asked Questions: Normal Respiratory Rate

Why is it important to measure respiratory rate?

A person’s respiratory rate is a good indicator of health, as well as showing how well they are moving air in and out of the lungs. If the body is having trouble getting or absorbing oxygen, or there is another serious problem, the respiratory rate is often an early indicator.

What is a dangerous respiratory rate?

The normal respiratory rate for adults is between 12 to 20 normal breaths per minute at rest. A respiration rate that dips below 12 breaths per minute, or goes over 25 breaths per minute, is considered abnormal. Keep in mind that a number of different factors, including stress, anxiety, fitness, body temperature, substances and overall health, can affect your respiratory rate. If your respiratory rate remains over or under the normal respiratory rate for adults for any lasting amount of time, see your doctor right away, and if it gets worse, seek emergency medical attention. If you also have COPD, seek medical attention immediately. If you see a blue tint to the skin, lips, nails or gums, or experience chest pain, caving of the chest, fever or lightheadedness in conjunction with rapid, shallow breathing, call 911.

What causes fast breathing?

There can be a number of different causes for an increase in your normal respiratory rate, and not all of them are cause for concern. If you have anxiety, a fever or are dehydrated, you can experience a higher than normal respiratory rate. In most cases, treating these causes will also treat the increase in your respiratory rate so it returns to normal. However, if you have asthma, COPD, diabetes, heart conditions, an infection or substance abuse issues, an increase in your respiratory rate could indicate a complication that requires medical help. Additionally, an unexplained increase in your respiratory rate could indicate a blood clot, lung infection or substance overdose. If you do not know what has caused a faster-than-normal respiratory rate, or you suspect a health complication, seek immediate medical attention. 



[1] Kim, H. C., Mofarrahi, M., & Hussain, S. N. (2008). Skeletal muscle dysfunction in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease3(4), 637–658.

[2] Yohannes, A. M., & Alexopoulos, G. S. (2014). Depression and anxiety in patients with COPD. European Respiratory Review : An Official Journal of the European Respiratory Society23(133), 345–349. http://doi.org/10.1183/09059180.00007813.

[3] Dirkje S Postma, et. al. Home treatment of COPD exacerbations. Thorax 1999;54(Suppl 2):S8–S13.





39 thoughts on “Respiratory Rate for COPD Patients: What is Normal?”

  1. Avatar faye stilley says:

    interesting comments but hardly enough information to help COPD patients deal with the disease or how an Inogen product can be used to help.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Faye, Thank you for your feedback. For more information on COPD, please visit our resources section about COPD: https://www.inogen.com/resources/living-with-copd/copd-symptoms/

  2. Avatar Kathleen says:

    This winter I have had great difficulty in breathing even in very short distances and I have to stop to catch my breath. This is affected my work as I am a resident manager on the community where I live and as of late I cannot speak and walk well at the same time and I let the prospects go up the stairs without me; I stay down stairs as I am so out of breath. I have the 4 lb Inogyn and even that is too heavy for me; I pull my back muscles, etc.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Kathleen, We're sorry to hear that you're having trouble – this has been an especially cold winter for most of us. If you cannot breathe you should call 911 immediately. Additionally you may need to consult your doctor about your flow settings and reevaulate which POC is right for you.

  3. Avatar Carole Corngold says:

    I have been using the Inogen G3 and G4 for a number of years since I was diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. Could you include a discussion of IPF in future Blogs?

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Carole, We certainly can! Please be on the lookout for future posts. In the meantime, we do have some content about Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. Please visit: https://www.inogen.com/blog/idiopathic-pulmonary-fibrosis/

  4. Avatar Gary Boling says:

    I have IPF. Do you have any news on experimental treatments/drugs being developed for slowing down or reversing this condition? I currently have the Inogen G3 unit and when I am active I have to keep it on level 5 in order to keep my O2 level close to 90 percent. I am not sure how much longer I will be able to continue using it. Do you have a "buy-back" program? Thank you in advance.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Gary, We do not offer a buy-back program, but luckily there are 4 known treatments for IPF. Oxygen therapy is just one type of treatment for IPF. Pulmonary Rehab, lung transplants, and various medications are also approved for IPF treatment. For more information, please visit: https://www.inogen.com/blog/idiopathic-pulmonary-fibrosis/

  5. Avatar FRED L MAY says:


    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Fred, Respiratory rate measures how many breaths you take per minute while pulse rate measures how many beats your heart makes in a minute. The two are closely linked, as your respiratory rate increases, your pulse rate increases as well. Vice versa, if your respiratory rate decreases, most often your pulse rate decreases as well. I hope this helps!

  6. Avatar Kenneth Burington says:

    Very informative. My M.D. told me this two years ago, but I slacked off exercise. Time to get back on it.


  7. Avatar J Ridenour says:

    Thank you for the information. My Dr. did not even mention the number of breathes per minute!!

  8. Avatar Joyce Peters says:

    Pulmonary rehab is really great! I did it where we lived before, they monitor your heart rate and breathing along with the different excercises. They have classes you attend along with the excercices ! program. Very worth while. Wish I had one close to me, I'd go again

  9. Avatar Donald E. Buckles says:

    It is my understanding that the alveoli are essentially dead in COPD patients, meaning lung capacity is greatly diminished. These inhalers are essentially ineffective with regard to the alveoli, but may help in other areas of the bronchial tree. Patients who have been over-exposed to radar microwave non-ionizing radiation are highly susceptible to body damage, not just lungs. ICD 9 E926.0. Patients with acute COPD have extremely limited capacity to follow any type of exercise regimen due to lack of oxygen. Also, the blood oxygen finger monitor may read 94 or 96, but the patient is totally debilitated following a walking test and has no lung capacity, leading to a crisis situation. ICD: J44,9 COPD; RO5 Cough; J98.4 Other disorders of lung; and J96.00 Respiratory failure.

  10. Avatar Dyan Kroll says:

    Any information I can get on COPD is helpful to me. The more correct info I have the better I can manage. The exercise part is SO true. I wouldn't have believed it but I now walk everyday and my breathing is much stronger. I try to do all I can to avoid an exacerbation which is just plain terrifying. Also I found pulmonary rehab very helpful for me.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Dyan, For more information about COPD, please visit our COPD resource section: https://www.inogen.com/resources/living-with-copd/copd-symptoms/

  11. Avatar Karen Greenfield says:

    I have an inogen G3 and have been told by a tec department that I have to breathe in through my nose and out also through my nose for the machine to work. When I am active I need to exhale through my mouth to keep from being so breathless. Which is proper.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Karen, The Inogen One G3 delivers oxygen on a pulse-dose basis – to register whether or not you've taken a breath you need to breathe in and out of your nose so that the machine can sense it.

  12. Avatar tom missler says:

    very helpful article. it might help to give an additional explanation of how long and how much above a 110
    heart beat would be safe. say a 20 minute workout with a 110 heart rate for a 73 yr old even with copd
    and on oxygen could be safe. i think the length of time
    beyond 20 minutes is concerning.

    please begin doing something about a tube management system on your products.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Tom, Thank you for your feedback – we periodically go through our blog posts and web pages and make updates. We will keep your comments in mind when we do the next revision.

  13. Avatar Ed Bryant says:

    ccap 2.5 lit oxy

    also Emphysema

  14. Avatar Andrea says:

    I think it should be stated that people can live many years with 30% lung function, and just because they call it "end stage," it doesn't mean you're going to die soon. I'm at 30% and I haven't deteriorated in two years.

  15. Avatar Jean B. Seegmiller says:

    No one seems to know what my problem is(?) but the blood oxygen drops to between 71 and 82 quite often, and nothing but immediate sit down with my concentrator gives relief. I seldom see a 90 reading. I have an Inogen 4 and do not even attempt activities that were normal just a few years ago. I cannot exercise now. Never smoked a day in my life. Life is exhausting.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Jean, We're sorry to hear that you're not feeling well. If you are not able to do the activities you would like to do and your oxygen levels are as low as you've described, you should consult your primary care doctor and see if it might be appropriate for you to use a higher flow setting.

  16. Avatar Dorothy says:

    I have had my Inogen 3 for about 3 years. My greatest
    problem is walking up steps or any incline, not to
    mention activities. To help when on an incline I increase pulse up to 4 and that helps me get into the house. I am wondering if I should have one will go up 5.
    all of the information is very useful.

  17. Avatar linda gruskin says:

    I need to know how bad the radiated cat scan is for copd patients

  18. Avatar Deborah says:

    I also have your G3 unit and concentrator. I use bottled oxygen with exercise and have a Invacare fill unit that fills bottles. The continuous flow really helps with exercising. I walk on a treadmill at least 4 times per week and lift small weights. I have been on oxygen 24/7 for 2 years now, but exercising has proven to increase my stamina to at least sit and move around my house now without being on oxygen.

  19. Avatar NjB says:

    Thanks so much for the information. I did not know what my respiratory rate should be. Never had an explanation of an exacerbation either! (Only thought if it was that I got bronchitis!)

  20. Avatar Lynne Becker says:

    Can you give any information on supplemental oxygen for patients with Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency?
    Thank you.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Lynne, Thank you for the great idea for an upcoming blog post. We will do some research and will try to publish something soon. Right now, we have a blog post about understanding the role genetics play in AAT: https://www.inogen.com/blog/understanding-alpha-1/

  21. Avatar Tom T says:

    My breath is still at a normal rate (15-18 per minute) but lately I got this heavy pressure on my scull. A doctor told me that my lungs have deteriorated to the point that can not supply the right amount of oxygen to my brain and actually I am retaining to much CO. At my question on how much time I got left to live in these condition, the answer was 3 to 6 months. I wonder if anyone has had a similar experience and have bitten the 3 to 6 months time.

  22. Avatar Robbin Buckley says:

    Can you tell me why SSI and Medicare does not pay for these units, because they are considered a luxury item. I have osteoporosis, Severe COPD, Asthma, Emphysema, so when I cough hard a fracture ribs, so when I am dealing with multiple fractures I am all but trapped in my house, because even carrying the so called small tanks, cause me undo pain. So cracks me up that breathing is considered a luxury

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Robbin, It's not so much that Medicare considers portable oxygen concentrators a luxury item; it has more to do with how Medicare bills. Medicare bills 3 years in a 5 year billing cycle meaning Medicare collects everything in the first 3 years. Because Medicare bills this way, if you've been on oxygen therapy through Medicare for an extended period of time, most likely there are not enough months left for us to collect and cover the cost of our product. I hope this makes sense – if not, please call an Oxygen Specialist at 1-800-374-9038.

    2. Avatar Gardenia Girl says:

      I know how you feel. In addition to COPD I have lupus, diabetes, kidney stones, and stage 4 kidney failure, and I will be on dialysis in the not too distant future. Since a dialysis session can last from 3 to 5 hours, 3 to 4 times a week, is it really such a luxury to be able to breathe while I 'm there?

  23. Avatar charles bouchet says:

    very interesting .I have had COPD since 1999 second hand smoke.I am on a concentrator only on night.because of my low rate breathing. My day reading says i,m 92-95 but i.m still having problems that my Pul.Dr does not understand. I,m tried week and irrable. I.m almost 74 & it appears my problems are getting worst. So maybe someone has the same problems.

  24. Avatar charlotte taylor says:

    I do not have inogen – I wish I did but medicare won't help me out with it. I have found some things that help that was not in the article. Like bad coughing…cough meds don't help but a little and I mean a little….blackberry brandy will burn out the phlem ( about a tablespoonful) . I go to the chiropractor once a week and he works on my breathing vertabraes. He keeps me breathing. He aligns my spine – he presses the air out several times and makes me breathe in – and uses the vibrator as well. Its heaven for sure!!!!

  25. Avatar David Monster says:

    My Heart Rate Fluxarate from 88 to 117 every now and then even if im only setting still.

  26. Avatar Brigitte Friedman says:

    I wish to know more about too slow [and deep ] breathing. My breathing is very slow. Exacerbations for me are not being able to speed up breathing when ill and going from normal health status to quiet delirium with shortness of breath that I cannot describe because i am delirious and cannot talk or think. I think I suffered peripheral damage to the autonomic nervous system and am not aware of sensations like shortness of breath. Also I do not breath faster except when moving [locomotor activity]. My breathing seems to be broken. And I am fine most of the time, very active, etc…except I can go straight to hypercapnia respiratory failure overnight if I get sick enough . Have you seen others with too slow breathing? [I only found out about my breathing too slowly at a first aid class. It takes active exhaling and effort for me to breath but I thought this was true for everyone.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Brigitte, Thank you for sharing your symptoms and concerns with us. We are not medically trained, so I suggest you seek the guidance of a doctor or pulmonologist. I hope you begin to breathe better soon.

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