Hesperian Health Guides

How to Take Temperature, Pulse, Respiration, and Blood Pressure

When a person is sick or has a health problem, her basic physical signs may change. The next few pages tell how to measure these signs to know if a person has a problem.


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If you need to know a person’s temperature and do not have a thermometer, touch the back of your hand to the person’s forehead, and compare it with your own forehead. If the skin on her forehead feels much warmer, she probably has a fever. To learn more about what to do for a fever.

A thermometer showing the range of a fever as above 37.5 degrees Celsius and a high fever as above 39 degrees
Celsius (C)
Fahrenheit (F)
Too Low
High Fever
The levels listed here for normal and fever temperatures are for the mouth.

If you have a thermometer, you can take a person’s temperature in the mouth, armpit, or rectum. A person’s temperature is normally cooler in the armpit, warmer in the mouth, and warmest in the rectum. There are 2 kinds of thermometer scales, Celsius (C) and Farenheit (F). Here is how they compare. Either can be used to measure a person’s temperature.

How to take the temperature

(using a thermometer marked in degrees Celsius—°C)

  1. Clean the thermometer well with soap and cold water, or alcohol. Hold it at the end without the silver (or red) and shake it hard, with a snap of the wrist, until it reads less than 36 degrees.
  2. Put the thermometer . . .
  3. under the tongue (keep the mouth closed around it)
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    OR in the armpit if there is danger that the person might bite the thermometer
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  4. Leave it there for 3 or 4 minutes.
  5. Read it (see above).
  6. Wash the thermometer well with soap and cold water. Then, if you can, soak it for 20 minutes in a bleach solution and rinse with clean water.

Pulse (heartbeat)

The pulse tells how fast the hear t is beating and how hard it is working. After hard work or exercise, the hear t of a healthy person beats fast, but slows back to normal in a few minutes. The hear t usually increases 20 beats a minute for each degree (C) rise in fever.

A normal pulse in an adult is between 60 and 90 beats per minute. A fast pulse can be a sign of:

  • blood loss or fluid loss, or shock.
  • fever and infection.
  • problems with the lungs and breathing system, or with the heart.
  • thyroid problems.

Respiration (breathing rate)

The breathing rate tells you about health of the lungs and breathing system. It can also give information about a person’s general health. To take the breathing rate, watch the chest rise and fall when a person is at rest. Normal breathing in an adult is 12 to 20 total breaths per minute (a complete breath equals one breath in and one breath out).

Breathing usually speeds up (along with the pulse) when there is infection, fever, blood loss or dehydration, shock, lung problems, or other emergencies.

Very slow pulse and breathing in a very sick person can mean she is near death.

Fast, shallow breathing can be a sign of infection of the breathing system. A breathing rate of more than 30 breaths per minute may be a sign of pneumonia.

Blood pressure

a health worker using a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope to measure a woman's blood pressure

Blood pressure is a measure of how hard the blood presses on the inside of the blood vessels.

It is useful to know a woman’s blood pressure at these times:

  • during pregnancy, childbirth, miscarriage, or abortion.
  • if she is using or planning to use birth control pills.
  • in emergencies, such as shock, severe abdominal pain, or a difficult childbirth.

What the numbers mean

A blood pressure measurement (BP) has two numbers:

example of a blood pressure reading: BP 120 over 80120 is the top (systolic) reading
80 is the bottom (diastolic) reading

Normal blood pressure for an adult is from 90/60 to 120/80.

If a person has a blood pressure in this range, there is no need to worry. If the blood pressure is between 120/80 and 140/90, a person should exercise, lose weight, and eat less salt. If the blood pressure is over 140/90, the person also needs to take medicines. A person who has diabetes or heart disease should take medicine if the blood pressure is over 130/80.

A pregnant woman who has a blood pressure over 140/90 should see a health worker for medicines that are safe for her to take.

A sudden drop in blood pressure is a danger sign, especially if it falls below 90/60. Watch for any sudden drop in the blood pressure of persons who are losing blood or at risk of shock. If you get an abnormal blood pressure reading and you do not think the person is in shock, wait a few minutes and take the blood pressure again.

WWHND ChSk Page 532-3.png This woman’s blood pressure goes up and down a little from month to month. This is normal.

You will often need to watch a person’s blood pressure over time (for example, during a woman’s pregnancy) to see how it changes. It will help to keep a record:

How to take blood pressure

There are several types of blood pressure equipment.

Some have a tall gauge that looks like a thermometer.Others have a round dial. Blood pressure equipment usually comes with a stethoscope.

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To take a person's blood pressure, first tell her what you are going to do. Then follow these steps:
1. Fasten the cuff around the bare upper arm.
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2. Close the valve on the rubber bulb by turning the screw to the right. The valve will get shorter.
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3. Feel for a pulse just below the elbow, on the inside of the arm, and put the stethoscope over the pulse. Sometimes you may not feel the pulse. If you cannot, put the stethoscope over the center of the skin crease inside the elbow.
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4. Pump the cuff up by squeezing the bulb.
5. As you pump, the
needle will move.
6. Then release the valve a little so that the air leaks out slowly.
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7. The needle will begin to go back down. (If the valve is closed, it will stay at 200.)
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WWHND ChSk Page 533-8.png When it
200, stop
As the air leaks out, you will start to hear the person’s pulse through your stethoscope. Notice where the needle or the silver bar is when you star t to hear the pulse (this will be the top number) and when the pulse disappears or gets very soft (this will be the bottom number).

illustration of the below: a blood pressure dial with arrows pointing to 180, 140, 100, and 70

If you...
do not hear anything when the needle is here...
...or here
but start to hear
a pulse about here
and then lose it
again when the
needle is about here
then the blood pressure is: 100/70.

This page was updated:23 Oct 2019