Unresponsive breathing adult - St John Ambulance


Unresponsiveness can last for a few seconds (e.g. fainting) or for a long time. It’s often brought on by serious illness or injury (e.g. a head injury), or by taking alcohol or other drugs. Find out what to do if an adult is unresponsive and breathing.

What to look for - Unresponsive and breathing adult

When someone looks like they’re asleep but they’re unable to respond to noise or body contact, it’s likely they’re unresponsive.

What you need to do - Unresponsive and breathing adult


Open the airway

Open the airway

  • Place one hand on the casualty’s forehead and gently tilt their head back. As you do this, the mouth will fall open slightly.
  • Place the fingertips of your other hand on the point of the casualty’s chin and lift the chin.

Check breathing

Check for breathing

  • Look, listen and feel for normal breathing – chest movement, sounds and breaths on your cheek. Do this for no more than ten seconds.

Put them in the recovery position

Recovery position for adults

  • This will keep their airway open.
  • Kneel down next to them on the floor.
  • The next three steps are for if you find the casualty lying on their back. If you find them lying on their side or their front you may not need all three.

    1. Place their arm nearest you at a right angle to their body, with their palm facing upwards.

    2. Take their other arm and place it across their chest so the back of their hand is against their cheek nearest you, and hold it there. With your other hand, lift their far knee and pull it up until their foot is flat on the floor.

    3. Now you’re ready to roll them onto their side. Carefully pull on their bent knee and roll them towards you. Once you’ve done this, the top arm should be supporting the head and the bent leg should be on the floor to stop them from rolling over too far.

If you suspect spinal injury

Jaw thrust technique

  • If you think the casualty could have a spinal injury, you must keep their neck as still as possible. Instead of tilting their neck, use the jaw thrust technique: place your hands on either side of their face and with your fingertips gently lift the jaw to open the airway, avoiding any movement of their neck.

Call for help

Call for help

  • Once you’ve put them safely into the recovery position, call 999 or 112 for medical help.
  • Until help arrives, keep checking the casualty's breathing.
  • If they stop breathing at any point, call 999 or 112 straight away and get ready to give them CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation – a combination of chest pressure and rescue breaths).

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