The vital signs are the evidence of the body’s current physical functioning.
They provide critical information that is “vital” to life, so they are called vital signs. In an emergency, the patient’s heart rate is the first vital sign verified by a nurse.
The nurse wants to know if the person’s heart is beating and at what rate. Next, the nurse will check the person’s breathing and get a blood pressure cuff to control blood pressure. The last vital sign is temperature.
Vital signs are used to measure the basic functions of the body. These measures are taken to help assess a person’s general physical health, give clues to possible illnesses, and show progress toward recovery.
The normal ranges for a person’s vital signs vary with age, weight, gender and general health. There are four main vital signs: body temperature, blood pressure, pulse (heart rate) and respiratory rate.
Process of taking vital signs
There is a series of numbers provided as the norm for each vital sign. These normal ranges include:
Heart rate: 60-100 beats per minute.
Breathing: 12-18 breaths per minute.
Blood pressure: 90/60 to 120/80.
Temperature: 97.8 to 99.1 degrees Fahrenheit or 38 to 38.5 degrees Celsius.
Keep in mind that these ranges are normal for the adult population. A health worker will also look at normal levels for the patient. In some of the patients the values mentioned above vary slightly.
For example, a softball player may have a slower heart rate. This is due to the athletic conditioning that the softball player has achieved. The heart is a muscle, and it has learned to function at a lower rate.
The vital signs can provide the information that the health professional needs to attend to the needs of the patient.
The alteration of the vital signs in a patient can indicate an acute or chronic medical problem. The more out of the norm the vital signs are usually indicates a sicker patient.
When taking vital signs in a non-emergency situation, the room should be quiet and the patient should be as comfortable as possible.
If possible, vital signs should not be taken at least 5 minutes after the patient enters the room. This is to avoid getting a reading that is altered due to activity.
Of course, if the patient is very ill, this may not be feasible.
The patient must sit down when taking his vital signs. Take a moment to look at the patient. If the patient is anxious or in pain this can cause alterations of the vital signs.
The order of taking the different vital signs is not important in a non-emergency medical situation.
Taking the temperature
Usually, in a patient who is not critical, the health worker will first take the patient’s temperature, which is a measure of how the body generates and removes heat. There are several different ways to measure the temperature in a patient.
Oral: A thermometer is placed under the tongue in the patient’s mouth. The temperature is measured with a glass thermometer that is read visually or with an electronic device that provides a digital reading.
Patients should not eat or drink anything before the measurement. If you use a glass thermometer, make sure it is clean and shake the thermometer to get the mercury level below 95 degrees.
Hold the thermometer under the patient’s tongue for 3-4 minutes with a glass thermometer or until the unit beeps for an electronic device. A digital thermometer is the preferred method for measuring an adult’s temperature.
Anal: When using a glass or digital thermometer, health professionals will lubricate the thermometer and place it in the patient’s anus approximately 1 inch. Keep in mind that the anal reading will be a higher degree because it is higher than the temperature. So if the reading is 99.0, the recorded temperature would be 98.0. This is the preferred method to take the child’s temperature.
Axillary: The health professional places a digital or glass thermometer under the patient’s arm. Note that the axillary reading will be 1 degree lower because it is not a reading of the temperature near the center of the body. So if the reading is 97.0, the recorded temperature would be 98.0.
Tympanum: For this reading, a special thermometer is inserted into the patient’s ear. These are electronic, so the unit will beep when the reading is complete.
Skin: A strip thermometer can measure the temperature of a patient’s skin. Since this is the least accurate method of taking a patient’s temperature, health professionals will only use it when there is no other way to obtain a patient’s temperature.
Temporary: A special digital thermometer is used for this reading. The device is placed on the forehead and slides along one side of the face. It is then held until the unit beeps.
Taking the heart rate
Measuring the number of beats in a minute is how the heart rate is recorded. This measurement is usually known as PPM or palpitations per minute.
The heart rate can be taken in any large artery in the body, although it is usually taken in the radial artery in the wrist.
To measure PPM without a monitor, place your index and middle finger just above the patient’s wrist in line with the thumb.
Push gently at the beginning and then apply light pressure once you feel the pulse. Be sure not to use your thumb to avoid confusing the patient’s pulse with your pulse. Count for 1 full minute to get the most accurate reading.
Nowadays there are many electronic devices to measure the heart rate.
Some are very precise, but a health worker should always do a radial pulse measurement to compare with digital reading.