Each time you call a doctor to report a concern about your family member’s health, expect a question about their blood pressure, breathing, or temperature. Vital signs tell the doctor much about what’s happening inside the patient’s body, where the eyes can’t see. The five primary vital signs combined paint a picture of the patient’s immediate health status – crisis, stable, or somewhere in-between. Therefore, developing the ability to take and respond to vital signs changes is essential for caregivers.
What Do You Need to Know?
Most healthcare professionals consider the following five primary vital signs: blood pressure, pulse, breathing (respiration), body temperature, and oxygen saturation. As a caregiver, it’s good to know
- when you should take vital signs,
- the type of equipment needed,
- how to take vital signs correctly,
- what the readings mean, and
- when you need to report your findings to the doctor.
Why is Monitoring Vital Signs Helpful?
Vital signs provide direct evidence of how the body’s organs respond to whatever is assaulting them. Of course, we can’t see underneath the skin, but we find out how the body’s most important organs are holding up when we take vital signs. The brain, circulatory and respiratory systems are THE most important systems in our body. Without any one of them, we cannot function. See below what we learned from each of them.
- An electrical impulse, created by chemicals that stimulate the heart, generates a pulse. For example, a pulse may be fast or slow, pounding or thread, regular or irregular, present or absent.
- The blood vessels create a blood pressure reading based on the heart’s effort to push blood out of its chambers and how much it relaxes between beats. Blood pressure readings may be high, low, narrow, wide, bounding, or faint and measure the volume of air brought into or exhaled out of the lung. Breaths can be full, shallow, normal, congested, noisy, rapid, shallow, irregular, slow, and others.
- Body temperature reflects the body’s response to environmental conditions and internal triggers like infections and trauma. Therefore, body temperatures go up and down.
- Oxygen saturation reflexes the amount of oxygen used by the body. If there is a problem, doctors must narrow down the cause with several potential systems as options. For example, low oxygen saturation could mean slow or congested breathing, low iron count reducing the blood’s ability to create hemoglobin to transport oxygen, rapid heart rates using oxygen, and many other concerns.
Knowing How to Take Vital Signs Correctly is Essential
Caregivers should know how to take vital signs correctly, not how it’s performed on TV. People learn in different ways. Some learn by reading, others by watching, and some need a combination. I’ve tried to provide a combination of ways for you to learn how to take vital signs. YouTube videos provide visuals for you to see the procedures being performed. Written steps are also available for some of the more complex procedures.
How to Check Vital Signs
Managing the Process
Once you know how to perform the process, you must manage it.
How often do you need to take vital signs? There is no set rule. The answer varies based on what’s happening with your family member. If they are healthy, you don’t need to check vital signs often–maybe every few months or when something changes.
If you notice a change in how your family member looks for the worse, check vital signs to see if one or more of them have changed from normal. Notice I said, “what is normal for them.” When you see a table that says “normal ranges,” that’s the average for the US. However, each person has their own normal based on how their body works. So, when you consistently get the same numbers grouped close together several times in a row, that’s usually your family member’s normal. However, if you take their vital signs and the results vary greatly on any vital signs, it’s worth watching for other signs.
I should also mention that you may need to monitor vital signs for medication side effects. For example, some medications can harm the body. Taking vital signs may be a way of detecting that harm early.
What are Normal Vital Signs?
Each system of the body has a “normal” level of function. Lab values measuring within a specific range are normal when that system works correctly. If the lab work is outside that range, it indicates that something may be wrong with the organs, such as stress or disease.
An interesting factor that you may not know is that gender and genetics can influence lab values. Normal values” take into consideration those differences. Furthermore, “normal” blood pressure in one area of the country might be slightly different due to racial or gender influences. I mention this because, at times, you may see different values listed as “normal” in different areas of the county.
Why Are Vital Signs Important?
Record your family member’s vital signs periodically to know what is normal for them. Take several readings rather than just one or two because anyone can have an “off” day. When you want to determine what someone’s normal might represent, taking an average so that you see a trend gives you a truer picture.