Rescue breathing is a potentially lifesaving technique. Rescue breathing involves exhaling into the airway and lungs of a person who has stopped breathing.

A person performing rescue breathing takes a range of steps, including checking whether the person is conscious and removing any obstructions from their airway.

The exact steps depend on whether a person delivers rescue breathing as part of CPR and whether the one in distress is an adult or a child.

Read on to find out how to perform rescue breathing.

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The whole body needs oxygen to function and stay alive. It gets the oxygen it needs by taking air into the lungs. When a person stops breathing, their brain cells can start dying within 5 minutes of being without oxygen.

Rescue breathing is a first-aid technique a person can use on someone who has stopped breathing. Previously known as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, rescue breathing involves blowing air into a person’s mouth to keep them oxygenated and try and save their life.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is a related lifesaving technique. CPR may involve rescue breathing, but sometimes it only involves chest compressions.

A person may need rescue breathing if they:

  • choke
  • almost drown
  • experience a drug overdose
  • ingest poison
  • breathe in carbon monoxide
  • have a severe asthma attack

A person can perform rescue breathing without chest compressions when someone is unconscious and not breathing but still has a pulse.

If the person has no pulse, they need CPR, which involves chest compressions and rescue breathing.

If the person is in cardiac arrest, meaning their heart has stopped, the American Heart Association recommends that only certified rescuers perform rescue breathing. This is because rescue breathing artificially expands the chest, stopping blood from flowing to the heart.

If a person’s heart is beating but they are not breathing, the following rescue breathing technique may help keep them alive until an ambulance arrives.

Step 1: Preparing to give rescue breaths

  • Check that the area is safe. Ensure that there are no dangers, such as traffic, fire, or broken electrical wires.
  • Tap the person’s shoulder. Ask loudly whether they are OK.
  • Ask for assistance. If the person does not respond, call 911 or ask a bystander to do so.
  • Flip the person on their back. If the person does not appear to have a spine injury, move them gently onto their back if they are not already in this position.
  • Kneel beside the person. Position yourself beside their chest and lift their chin to tilt their head back slightly.
  • Open the person’s mouth. Check for any obstructions, such as food or vomit.
  • Deal with any obstructions. If the obstruction is loose, remove it from the person’s mouth. If it is stuck, do not try to pull it out, as this may push it farther into the person’s airway.
  • Place your ear close to the person’s mouth. Listen for a maximum of 10 seconds. If they are not breathing normally, begin rescue breathing.

Step 2: Giving rescue breaths

  • Use two fingers to lift the chin, gently tilting the person’s head.
  • Pinch their nose, seal your mouth over theirs, and blow for about 1 second.
  • Check that the person’s chest rises.
  • If it does not rise, check the position of their head and tilt it back slightly again, if necessary.
  • Breathe into their mouth again.
  • If their chest still does not rise, they may be choking.

If the person is in cardiac arrest, they may need CPR, which involves rescue breathing and chest compressions. The steps are as follows:

  • Give two rescue breaths. Give one breath lasting 1 second, and then take a regular deep breath before delivering a second breath lasting 1 second.
  • Perform 30 chest compressions.
  • Repeat this cycle until the person regains consciousness or emergency medical support arrives.

Each rescue breath should give the person enough air to visibly cause their chest to rise. This is equal to a tidal volume, or how much air moves in or out of the lungs with each breath cycle, of approximately 500–600 mL.

If it is impossible to give the person mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing, mouth-to-nose rescue breathing may be acceptable.

A rescuer can also deliver mouth-to-stoma rescue breathing if the person has a tracheal stoma — a surgically created alternative airway.

Read more about CPR.

If the person who has stopped breathing is an infant, make the following changes:

  • Rather than shouting, “Are you OK?” flick the sole of their foot to see if they respond.
  • Rather than placing your mouth over their mouth only, cover both their nose and mouth.

A person can use rescue breathing on its own as a first-aid technique when someone has stopped breathing but still has a pulse. If the person needing first aid has no pulse, they need CPR.

A 2017 review found that giving chest compressions alone increases a person’s chances of survival compared with providing rescue breathing and chest compressions.

According to data from a 2020 American Heart Association report, less than 40% of adults receive CPR from a nonmedically trained bystander when in distress.

Additionally, bystanders apply an automated external defibrillator (AED) to fewer than 12% of adults experiencing cardiac arrest before emergency medical support arrives.

The below video from the American Red Cross shows how to perform hands-only CPR.

If someone stops breathing, oxygen no longer reaches their vital organs and tissues, including their brain.

Without oxygen, cell death can begin within minutes. Even if a person still has a pulse, their heart may stop if it no longer gets oxygen.

People administering lifesaving efforts should ask a bystander to try to locate a defibrillator.

It is essential to call 911 as soon as possible or ask another person present to do so.

Rescue breathing is a first-aid technique a person can perform on someone who has stopped breathing. People sometimes use rescue breathing during CPR.

If a person has stopped breathing, it is vital to seek emergency medical help as soon as possible. However, rescue breathing may keep them alive until emergency medical help arrives.