You may have heard the term “vitals” thrown around at the doctor’s office or on your favourite medical drama. What does it mean though? And can you measure vitals or vital signs yourself? Let’s take a look at the four important vital signs, what they mean, and how you can self-monitor vital signs from the comfort of your own home:
What Are Vital Signs (And How to Read Them)
The average body temperature may range anywhere between 97.8 and 99 degrees Fahrenheit, with the most well known temperature you should aim for being 98.6 degrees. Your own body temperature may vary simply by your activity level, the time of day, your food and fluid consumption, and if you’re a woman, even what part of your menstrual cycle you are in.
A temperature below 95 degrees puts you into hypothermia resulting in confusion, shivering, and eventually a stopping of the heart. In addition to extreme cold, hypothermia can be caused by anything which decreases your body’s own heat production including alcohol intoxication, advanced age, and low blood sugar. A temperature above 98.6 is considered hyperthermia, typically due to fever from the body fighting off an infection, adverse reaction to drugs, or exposure to extreme heat and humidity. Typically a temperature over 101 degrees is cause for alarm.
You can take your temperature in a variety of ways, the most common being with an oral or ear thermometer. Axillary temperatures are taken under the armpit and rectal temperatures through the rectum. In the past decade, special thermometers which are waved across the skin of the forehead have come into prominence and are reliable for measuring body temperature too.
The number of breaths you take in a minute equals your respiration rate. Normal respiration rates range from 12 to 20 breaths a minute, which may sound low, but know that you should measure respiration rate while at rest. Illness, fever, pneumonia, and other medical conditions can heighten respiration rate. Rapid breathing while at rest can indicate that your body is not getting enough oxygen to subsist and is trying harder and harder to intake breath.
Oxygen saturation levels can be read with a pulse oximeter which slips on over your finger and pulses little streams of light. The best pulse oximeter can read in seconds what your oxygen saturation levels are out of what they should be and display it it as a percentage (along with your pulse rate). Oxygen saturation between 95 and 100% are normal, while anything lower than 92% could indicate you are not getting enough oxygen and therefore your vital organs may suffer.
Every time your heart beats, it’s physically pumping blood through your arteries to deliver oxygen and vital nutrients to your organs and brain. The number of times your heart beats a minute while at rest gives you your heart rate and combined with the strength of your pulse, you get your pulse rate.
A normal pulse rate can vary greatly for adults, from 60 to 100 depending on age, activity level, illness, and even mood. Athletes, for example, who commit to extensive training will have exceedingly low resting heart rates with cyclist Lance Armstrong, most famously, measuring in with a pulse rate of 32 beats per minute while at rest in the peak of his conditioning.
You can check your own easily with a pulse oximeter or digital blood pressure monitor if you have one as those technological devices typically include a pulse rate reading. Or you can use your own fingers to check your pulse. Most easily done is measuring the pulse on your wrist while at rest. Using the fingertips of your forefinger and middle finger, press gently on the artery found on the underside of your opposite wrist, below the thumb, and set a timer for 60 seconds. Count the pulses of the artery you feel with your fingers in that full minute. Or measure for 15 seconds and multiply by 4.
The force at which your heart is pumping blood through your arteries is your blood pressure. The most direct reflection of potential heart issues, the blood pressure is usually the first thing that is measured when you go to the doctor’s office (along with temperature and pulse rate). A normal blood pressure is around 120/80 – the top number is the systolic pressure and reflects the force in your blood vessels when your heart beats while the bottom number, diastolic pressure, measures the force in your blood vessels when your heart is at rest.
While some people naturally have a lower blood pressure, anything below 90/60 should be addressed as it may indicate infection, dehydration, or worse. When your heart cannot pump at its normal rate, it is unable to circulate vital nutrients and oxygen to keep your organs, heart, and brain functioning. High blood pressure, or hypertension, affects tens of millions and Americans and is dangerous because of the wear and tear it places on the heart and arteries, which leads to heart disease, stroke, and more. Hypertension occurs when your blood pressure is over 140/90 it’s important to understand these vital signs.
While a nurse or doctor may measure your blood pressure with a cuff, dial, and stethoscope, to measure blood pressure on your own, you will need a digital or aneroid device. Sold in most pharmacies over the counter, digital or aneroid blood pressure monitors may include a cuff that goes around your upper arm or one that goes around your wrist. Blood pressure can also be affected by activity level, fluid and food consumption, and illness. It’s important to rest for a few minutes before taking your blood pressure as well as to sit down, feet flat on the ground, with your arm raised to heart level.
Do you need to have a blood pressure monitor, pulse oximeter, and thermometer in your house at all times? Unless a medical condition requires it, probably not, though a thermometer is a good staple to have on hand for measuring fevers with common colds and viruses. For those with hypertension or other acute and chronic ailments, being able to self-monitor vital signs can make a huge difference in managing health, logging symptoms, and even avoiding trips to the doctor and hospital.