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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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
 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 Disease, 3(4), 637–658.
 Yohannes, A. M., & Alexopoulos, G. S. (2014). Depression and anxiety in patients with COPD. European Respiratory Review : An Official Journal of the European Respiratory Society, 23(133), 345–349. http://doi.org/10.1183/09059180.00007813.