Normal Breathing and Respiration

Normal Breathing and Respiration (Explained)

by | Updated: Jun 4, 2024

Normal breathing is a physiological process that occurs unconsciously and automatically, thanks to the autonomic nervous system. It is essential for life and is vital for exchanging gases between the atmosphere and the body’s cells.

Respiration is the process of breathing that involves ventilation and oxygenation, which is required to maintain adequate oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood.

In this article, we will take a closer look at the process of normal breathing and respiration, how it works, and what role it plays in the human body.

Process of Normal Breathing

The process of breathing begins with an inhalation, which is when the diaphragm contracts and moves downward. This creates a negative pressure in the thoracic cavity, causing air to flow into the lungs.

The air travels through the nose or mouth and down the trachea, which branches off into the left and right mainstem bronchi. The bronchi then branch off into smaller airways called bronchioles, which end in alveoli.

The alveoli are tiny sacs that are lined with a thin layer of epithelial cells. This region is where gas exchange takes place between inhaled air and the blood.

Process of normal breathing


Respiration is defined as the physiological process of breathing oxygen in during inhalation while getting rid of carbon dioxide during exhalation.

Again, this process is known as gas exchange.

The air that enters the lungs during an inspiratory breath contains oxygen molecules that reach the alveoli.

Then oxygen diffuses from the alveoli into the blood, and carbon dioxide diffuses from the blood into the alveoli.

The oxygen-rich blood is then carried to the heart, where it is pumped to the rest of the body. The carbon dioxide-rich blood is returned to the lungs, where it is removed from the body by exhaling. 

Normal Breathing Pattern

During normal breathing at rest, the average person takes about 12 to 20 breaths per minute. The tidal volume, which is the volume inhaled or exhaled in a single breath, contains approximately 500-600 mL of air.

The process of breathing involves small inspiratory breaths that are followed by expiratory breaths. There is an automatic pause of 1-2 seconds after each exhalation.

The expiratory phase of breathing is passive and does not require any muscular effort. It occurs naturally due to the elasticity of lung tissue and the relaxation of the diaphragm.

How Does the Diaphragm Work

Most of the work of breathing while at rest is done by the diaphragm, which is a large, flat muscle that separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity.

When the diaphragm contracts, it moves downward and flattens out. This increases the volume of the thoracic cavity and decreases the pressure, which causes air to flow into the lungs.

When the diaphragm relaxes, it moves upward and decreases the volume of the thoracic cavity. This increase in pressure causes air to flow out of the lungs.

normal breathing and respiration

Accessory Muscles of Breathing

The accessory muscles of breathing are used when the person is talking, exercising, or experiencing shortness of breath.

They can become active during forced breathing, such as when blowing up a balloon or during mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The accessory muscles of breathing include the sternocleidomastoid, scalenes, and pectoralis minor muscles.

However, if the accessory breathing muscles are activated at rest during normal breathing, this is a sign of respiratory distress.

How Long Does Normal Breathing Last

The amount of time during each phase of breathing may vary depending on a person’s breathing pattern. However, the average person typically falls within the following ranges:

  • Inhalation: 1 to 1.5 seconds
  • Exhalation: 1.5 to 2 seconds
  • Expiratory pause: 1 to 2 seconds

Therefore, normal breathing for the average person at rest usually lasts for approximately 3-6 seconds.

As previously mentioned, this equates to a normal respiratory rate of approximately 12-20 breaths per minute.

Causes of Abnormal Breathing Patterns

There are many different causes of abnormal breathing patterns, including anxiety, pulmonary disorders, and neurological conditions.


Anxiety is surprisingly a common cause of abnormal breathing patterns. When a person experiences anxiety, they may start to breathe faster and more shallow than normal.

This can lead to a feeling of lightheadedness or dizziness, as well as a tightness in the chest.

Pulmonary Disorders

Pulmonary disorders are conditions that affect the lungs, which can make breathing more difficult. Some common examples include:

Each disease has different characteristics; however, they can all cause abnormal breathing patterns such as tachypnea, orthopnea, and apnea in severe cases.

Neurological Conditions

There are many different neurological conditions that can cause abnormal breathing patterns. Some common examples include:

While these types of diseases may not directly affect the lungs, they can cause problems with the muscles that are necessary for normal breathing.

For example, ALS is a disease that attacks the motor neurons, which are responsible for sending signals from the brain to muscle tissues.

This can cause muscular weakness and paralysis throughout the body, including the diaphragm. As a result, the person may have difficulty breathing and may require intubation and mechanical ventilation.

person with dyspnea and hypoxemia


How Long Should You Be Able to Inhale?

The average person should be able to inhale for 1-1.5 seconds while at rest during normal breathing. This is the inspiratory phase of breathing, which is known as inhalation.

In addition, the average person is typically capable of holding their breath for 30-90 seconds. However, this depends on factors such as age, fitness level, and overall health.

What is Eupnea?

Eupnea is a term that is used to describe a normal breathing pattern. This involves taking breaths with a normal rate, depth, and rhythm.

Eupnea is the opposite of dyspnea, which is a term that is used to describe an abnormal or difficult breathing pattern.

How Much Air Do We Breathe in One Breath?

The amount of air that is inhaled during each breath depends on a number of factors, including the person’s age, pulmonary mechanics, and overall health.

However, the average person typically inhales and exhales between 500-600 mL of air with each breath while at rest.

What is Natural Breathing?

Natural breathing is a term that is used to describe the process of breathing without any outside assistance.

This means that the person is not using any devices, such as an oxygen mask or a mechanical ventilator. Natural breathing is also sometimes referred to as unassisted breathing.

natural breathing illustration

Why is Normal Exhalation Passive?

Normal exhalation is considered to be passive because it does not require any muscular effort.

This is due to the fact that the lungs are elastic and will naturally return to their original size after they have been expanded during inhalation.

The process of exhalation is also helped by the downward movement of the diaphragm, which decreases the amount of space in the chest cavity.

Is There a Pause Between Inhalation and Exhalation?

There is typically a pause of 1-2 seconds that occurs between inhalation and exhalation while a person is breathing at rest.

This is known as an expiratory pause, which occurs when the person’s diaphragm and intercostal muscles relax after breathing out (exhalation).

How Many Times Do Your Breathe in a Minute?

The number of times that a person breathes in one minute is known as the respiratory rate. The average respiratory rate for an adult at rest is between 12-20 breaths per minute.

However, this number can increase during exercise, strenuous activity, or in cases of severe respiratory distress.

vital signs monitor illustration

What is Normal Quiet Breathing?

Normal quiet breathing is a term that is used to describe the process of breathing when a person is at rest and not exerting themselves.

This type of breathing is also sometimes referred to as eupnea, which is a normal breathing pattern with a normal rate, depth, and rhythm.

What is the Respiratory Center?

The respiratory center is a group of neurons in the medulla oblongata that is responsible for controlling the muscles of respiration.

This process involves sending signals to the muscles of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, which are responsible for expanding and contracting the thoracic cavity.

This allows normal breathing to occur without a person having to consciously think about taking a breath.

How Many Times Does the Average Person Breathe per Day?

The average person takes approximately 22,000 breaths per day. This equates to around 154,000 per week, 669,000 per month, and approximately 8,000,000 breaths per year.

Therefore, a person who lives to the age of 80 will take approximately 640,000,000 breaths throughout their lifetime.

Final Thoughts

Normal breathing and respiration are essential for life and play an important role in maintaining our overall health. Without adequate ventilation, oxygen levels in the blood can drop, and carbon dioxide levels can build up.

This can lead to a variety of health problems, including respiratory failure. In severe cases, it can require support from a mechanical ventilator.

Therefore, it is important to be aware of the different characteristics of normal breathing and to seek medical help if you are experiencing any abnormal breathing patterns. Thanks for reading!

John Landry, BS, RRT

Written by:

John Landry, BS, RRT

John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.


  • Braun, Sheldon R. “Chapter 43Respiratory Rate and Pattern.” National Library of Medicine, Butterworth Publishers, a division of Reed Publishing, 1990,
  • Whited, Lacey, and Derrel D. Graham. “Abnormal Respirations.” National Library of Medicine, Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing, 2022,
  • Webster, Lynn R., and Suzanne Karan. “The Physiology and Maintenance of Respiration: A Narrative Review.” National Library of Medicine, Pain Ther, Dec. 2020,
  • Powers, Kyle A., and Amit S. Dhamoon. “Physiology, Pulmonary Ventilation and Perfusion.” National Library of Medicine, Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing, Jan. 2022,
  • Hopkins, Susan R. “Ventilation/Perfusion Relationships and Gas Exchange: Measurement Approaches.” National Library of Medicine, Compr Physiol, 8 July 2020,

Recommended Reading