Unconscious but breathing – children and adults



If a person does not respond to the sound of your voice or to gentle pressure applied to their body, it is likely they are unconscious.

In this context, anyone over the age of one year old for the purpose of these instructions.

Recognition and treatment

Look for

Unconscious adult

  • To confirm if someone is unconscious but breathing complete the steps of the primary survey - Danger, Response, Airway, Breathing, Check for severe bleeding (DRABC)
  • If an AED is available refer to the steps for using an AED.

Check for danger

Check for danger (Adult)

  • Are you or they in any danger?
  • If you have not already done so make the area safe and then assess them
  • If a person is drowning, only enter the water to rescue them if it is safe to do so, you have been trainer to so and they are unconscious. Dial 999/112 for emegency help immediately for drowning victims.

Check for a response

Check for response (Adult)

  • Shout a command at them:
    • 'Can you hear me?'
    • 'Open your eyes'
  • Gently shake their shoulders
  • If they respond, check for severe bleeding and other injuiries
  • Shout for help.

Open the airway

Open the airway (Adult)

  • Help them to breath by opening their airway
  • To do this, place one hand on the forehead and using two fingers lift the chin.

Check breathing

Check for breathing (Adult)

  • Position your cheek close to their mouth
  • Look, listen and feel for no more than 10 seconds:
    • look to see if the chest is rising and falling
    • listen for breathing
    • feel the breath against your cheek 
  • If they are not breathing commence cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) - adults, children or infants
  • If they are breathing normally, treat any life threatening injuries and place them in the recovery position
  • If their breathing becomes noisy, stop treatment and turn them into the recovery position before continuing.

Put them in the recovery position

Recovery position - adult/child

  • Turn them onto their side
  • Lift chin forward in open airway position and adjust hand under the cheek as necessary
  • Check they cannot roll forwards or backwards
  • Monitor breathing continuously
  • If injuries allow, turn them to the other side after 30 minutes.

Call for help

Stroke Time to dial 999

  • Call 999/112 for emergency help.

More information about unconscious but breathing children and adults

If you suspect spinal injury, use the jaw thrust technique. Place your hands on either side of their face. With your fingertips gently lift the jaw to open the airway. Take care not to tilt their neck.

Agonal breathing

This is common in the first few minutes after a sudden cardiac arrest. It usually takes the form of sudden irregular gasps for breath. It should not be mistaken for normal breathing and if it is present chest compressions and rescue breaths (together called cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR) should be started without hesitation.

Related topics

Next steps

Take a first aid course

The advice provided in this section is no substitute for proper first aid training.

St John Ambulance holds first aid courses throughout the country. The following courses cover this topic:

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