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Agonal Breathing Definition

author image Amy Dixon
Amy Dixon has been writing on a local level since 2005, focusing on health and fitness. She is an ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist and holds a Master of Science degree in exercise and wellness promotion from Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania.
Agonal Breathing Definition
Agonal breaths are often present during cardiac arrest. Photo Credit Jochen Sands/Digital Vision/Getty Images

The respiratory system is responsible for the exchange of gases within the body. It is comprised of the nose, mouth, trachea and lungs. The automatic action of breathing occurs approximately 20,000 times a day, bringing oxygen into the body for energy and growth. You generally don’t have to worry about your breathing pattern. When your body needs more oxygen, your respiration rate increases. But when the body is suffering, your breathing rate and oxygen exchange is affected.

Respiration Rate

Respiration rate is how many breaths a person takes in one minute. The normal rate of respiration is between 15 and 20 breaths per minute. The more active you are, the more oxygen your muscles need, therefore your rate of respiration increases to meet this demand. At rest, it is considered abnormal to have respiration rates greater than 25 or less than 12. Agonal breaths can be as low as three to four breaths per minute.

Agonal Breathing

Agonal breathing is also known as gasping for breath. It is a sign that the body is not receiving the oxygen it needs. It most often occurs when a person is actively dying. They are indicative of cardiac arrest or the process of dying from lung cancer or emphysema.


The American Heart Association notes that agonal breathing can present as a snorting, gurgling or gasping sound. The duration differs from person to person, lasting from a few minutes to sometimes hours. Normal respirations are regular in regards to timing. Agonal breathing is irregular and sporadic. It is important to remember that agonal breathing is not sufficient in delivering oxygen to the body. It is a sign of distress and is therefore not considered breathing.

Cardiac Arrest

On a positive note, the American Heart Association cites that a patient who displays agonal breathing when suffering from cardiac arrest has a better chance of survival than one who does not. They also indicate that when agonal breaths are present, the brain is still functioning. When CPR is performed on those who are still gasping, they have a better chance of surviving than those who are not displaying signs of respiration.

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