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Respiratory Rate for COPD Patients: What is Normal?

lungs, stethoscope, lung, respiratory rate, respiratory rate for copdRespiratory rate refers to how many breaths you take per minute. The normal respiratory rate for adults at rest is 12 to 20 breaths per minute. Anything under that is considered bradypnea (breathing too slow) and anything over that is considered tachypnea (breathing too fast). In COPD, breathing rate is often increased, which is due to a number of factors. 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 other parts of your body, the muscles included. Initially, your COPD symptoms may be mild; even 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 worsens their breathlessness. Prolonged inactivity causes muscle deconditioning, which greatly affects physical activity leading to worsening symptoms. Thus becomes 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 eventually deteriorate. How do you fix it? With exercise. I know, it doesn’t sound doable but it’s true and it is. Exercise improves breathlessness and helps you control your breathing rate. Initially, if you’re unable to exercise on your own, 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 slow and work your way up to 30 minutes a day, 4 times a week.[1] And remember, before starting any type of exercise program, ask your doctor if it’s safe for you to exercise.


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 breathing rate and anxietyBreathing exercises, including pursed lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing, help break the cycle of breathlessness, but you must practice them daily so you can call upon them when you start to feel out of control.[2]

 Acute Exacerbation of COPD

Under most circumstances, you’re not going to be put in the hospital because of rapid breathing due to activity or anxiety. But you can be put in the hospital for a COPD exacerbation. A COPD exacerbation is a period of time when COPD symptoms worsen. Worsening breathlessness, increased respiratory rate, cough 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 may have a body temperature of > 101.3°F (38.5°C), a respiratory rate of > 25 breaths per minute and a heart rate of 110 or more.[3] This is not normal. If the exacerbation worsens or goes untreated, you may have to be put in the hospital to get immediate help for your breathing. 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 symptoms mentioned above, it’s important 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 think your breathing rate is too fast or too slow, be sure to visit your primary care provider for a thorough physical.

[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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