Factors That Affect Breathing Rate

What are factors that affect the breathing rate of human beings?

Expert Answers
bandmanjoe eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Breathing is a necessary function for human beings.  It supplies oxygen for a process called cellular respiration, which is how cells manufacture the energy they need for their life functions.  There are lots of things that can affect the rate of breathing in humans.  Exercise is one of those things, particularly aerobic exercise.  Aerobic exercise is any exercise that causes the person to breathe more, such as running, jogging, playing basketball, football, running track, or playing soccer.  Another factor that can influence breathing rate is allergic reactions to stimuli from the environment, such as pollen.  This can inflame the passageways leading to the lungs, making them smaller, requiring more air.  Smoking is a habit that can influence the development of lung cancer, which in turn influences the rate a person breathes.  Nervous conditions and reactions to stimuli also influence the breathing rate, such as the famed "fight or flight" syndrome.

akshaybhaskar | Student

The respiratory system includes structures such as the mouth, nose, trachea, lungs and the muscular diaphragm. The main purpose of the respiratory system is to draw air into the lungs, where oxygen can be harvested and incorporated into the blood for delivery to the rest of the body. It also functions to remove waste products, such as carbon dioxide, that collect from metabolism. The system is essentially a series of tubes that divides further and further, ending in small membranous sacs called alveoli. It is here that the gas exchange occurs. Breathing is usually an unconscious function, and there are several factors that affect how we breathe.

Heart Function

The heart's job is to pump blood throughout the body to deliver oxygen and other nutrients. The medulla is a portion of the brain that controls breathing. It measures the oxygen needs of the body and paces respiration to match. If the heart is unable to function properly due to disease, the blood it delivers will need to be extra-rich in oxygen in order to meet the body's needs, causing the rate of respiration to speed up.



Many prescription medications, as well as illegal drugs, will affect the breathing rate. Stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, amphetamines and cocaine will speed up respiration, and some have the potential to cause hyperventilation. Sedatives such as sleeping pills and alcohol will decrease the breathing rate. Anesthesia medications can slow or even stop breathing altogether, making it necessary to put surgical patients on an artificial ventilator. Opiate pain medications can also alter breathing.


The way we sit, particularly in a car or at a desk, can cause compression of portions of the rib cage and lungs, making effective breathing more difficult. In order to breathe deeply and ventilate fully, good, upright posture is required.


Activity level can affect breathing. As we increase our activity level the oxygen needs of the body increase, so our rate and depth of breathing is increased. It is possible to overexert ourselves to the point where we cannot inhale enough oxygen fast enough to meet the metabolic needs of the body, such that we are forced to stop and rest. On the other hand, when we are asleep, our bodies require less oxygen and our breathing becomes slow and shallow.


Many diseases affect our breathing, such as emphysema, which is a disease that makes gas exchange within the lungs very difficult and breathing to become labored. Bronchitis causes inflammation and mucous production, inducing fits of coughing. Asthma is an inflammatory condition that causes the airways to be constricted, making ventilation difficult. According to the American Lung Association, if you have a chronic cough, have shortness of breath, are coughing up blood or are wheezing, these may be warning signs of a lung disease.


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