How to Help Someone Who is Unconscious but Breathing

Man placing woman in the recovery position.

Someone may be unconscious but breathing for several reasons. They may have fainted due to dehydration or low blood sugar, or it could be a result of drug or alcohol use. The loss in consciousness could also be related to a major injury. However, for the purposes of this article, we’ll be focusing on treatment for someone who is unconscious, breathing, and suffering from no other life-threatening conditions—including spinal injuries.

While this may seem like a “non-emergency” situation, unconsciousness should be treated as a medical emergency, and there are still first aid protocols that need to be followed to safeguard the victim’s health.

Open the Airway

After calling 911, you’ll need to open the victim’s airway. Our muscles relax when we’re unconscious. If the victim is on their back, this means their tongue may relax and block their breathing. With your fingers under their chin and your other hand on their forehead, carefully tilt the victim’s head back to open their airway.

Ensure They’re Breathing

Check the victim to make sure they are breathing. Look for the rise and fall of their chest, listen for breathing sounds, and ensure you can feel their breath on your cheek for at least 10 seconds.

Move Them to Recovery Position

The recovery position is designed for exactly that—recovery. It keeps the victim’s airway open while they’re unconscious and ensures they won’t choke on fluid or vomit. To put the unconscious victim in the recovery position:

  1. Kneel on one side of the victim
  2. With the victim face up, straighten their limbs
  3. Position the arm closest to you at a right angle on the floor, forearm parallel to the head and neck, palm facing up
  4. Position the other arm across their chest and tuck it under the opposite cheek (the one closest to you)
  5. Bend the leg furthest from you at a right angle
  6. Gently roll the victim onto their side
  7. Tilt the victim’s head back and ensure the airway is free
  8. Stay with the victim and monitor them until help arrives

If someone is unconscious but breathing, there’s no need for CPR. However, that doesn’t mean CPR isn’t a vital skill to have. Learn how to save a life and receive your CPR certification with Specialized Health and Safety, or visit our blog for more tips on first aid and medical emergencies.