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Questions and answers about helping someone who isunresponsive and not breathing

Here are some questions people often ask. If you have a question that isn’t answered here, please feel free to email us at firstaid@redcross.org.uk or use this form.

Q

How can I check for a response?

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Speak to them: call their name and ask them if they are OK. Gently shake their shoulders. If they don’t respond to you, or if you do not get a coherent response from them, treat them as an unresponsive person.

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Q

What if I’m on my own when I find someone unresponsive and not breathing?

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If you are on your own, call 999 before you start chest compressions.

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Q

Why do I have to tilt their head back to check for breathing?

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When a person is unresponsive, their tongue can fall backwards and block their airway. Tilting their head backwards opens the airway by pulling the tongue forward.

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Q

What are chest compressions?

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Chest compressions are where you place your hands in the centre of the chest and repeatedly press downwards and release at a regular rate to help pump the blood around the body.

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Q

How long should I do chest compressions for?

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You should keep going until help arrives. If there is someone else who can help, change over every one to two minutes, with minimum interruption to chest compressions.

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Q

Will I break their ribs?

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You might, but don’t worry about this. Remember: your priority is to keep the blood circulating. A damaged rib will mend, but without delivering chest compressions their chances of survival are significantly reduced.

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Q

Do I do chest compressions differently on a child or baby?

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The approach is the same, but chest compressions should be modified slightly for children or babies. For a child aged between one year old to puberty, use one hand only. For a baby (under one year old), use two fingers.

Find out more about how to help an unresponsive and not breathing baby  and an unresponsive and not breathing child.

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Q

What should I do if I hear noisy or irregular breathing?

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Sometimes when a person is unresponsive their breathing may become noisy or irregular. This is usually a sign that their heart is not working properly. If a person is unresponsive and they have noisy or irregular breathing or are gasping, start chest compressions.

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Q

What if I make a mistake and do chest compressions, but the person is still breathing?

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It’s not ideal but don’t worry – there’s no evidence to suggest you will cause any serious damage.

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Q

Aren’t I supposed to give rescue breaths too?

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If you feel able to, you can combine chest compressions with breathing into their mouth or nose. However, giving chest compressions is the most important because their blood already has some oxygen in it and the compressions will keep that blood pumping about their body, taking oxygen to their brain. Breathing into their mouth or nose tops up the oxygen in their lungs. The combination of continuous cycles of 30 chest compressions followed by two breaths is called CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).

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Q

How do I give rescue breaths?

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If you feel able to, after about 30 pushes on their chest, you can give two steady breaths into their mouth or nose. Seal your mouth over either their mouth or nose, closing the other, and blow air into them with two steady breaths. On a baby (under one year old), you need to seal your mouth around both their nose and mouth because their faces are so small.

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Q

Will I restart the heart if I give chest compressions?

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The chance of restarting the heart by chest compressions alone is very slim. To restart, a heart usually needs an electric shock from an AED. Chest compressions pump a small amount of blood around the body to keep the organs – most importantly the brain – alive. You may not see any change in the person’s condition, but don’t give up. Chest compressions significantly increase the chance of the person surviving.

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Q

What is an automated external defibrillator (AED)?

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An automated external defibrillator (AED) is a machine that can be used to shock the heart back into normal rhythm. Once opened, the machine gives full instructions on what you should do.

Find out how to help an unresponsive and not breathing person when an AED is available.

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Q

What should I do if someone has been rescued from drowning and is unresponsive and not breathing?

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Once you have got the person onto dry land without endangering yourself, check to see if they are breathing by tilting their head back and looking and feeling for breaths. If they are unresponsive and not breathing, push firmly downwards in the middle of their chest at a regular rate.


In the event of someone drowning, it is ideal to alternate two rescue breaths with 30 chest compressions to build up a supply of oxygen in the blood.

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