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First aid is the immediate care that’s given to someone who’s ill or injured before emergency medical services (EMS) arrive on the scene. In an emergency situation, prompt first aid can be vital in helping to save a life.

When you’re faced with an emergency situation, there are some important things to remember as you give first aid. These are often referred to as the “ABCs of first aid.”

Read on below to learn more about the ABCs of first aid and what to do in an emergency situation.

The ABCs of first aid consist of three different components. Let’s explore each one in more detail.

A = Airway

A blocked airway can hamper a person’s ability to breathe. You can help open someone’s airway by doing the following:

  1. Place one hand on the person’s forehead.
  2. Gently tilt their head back.
  3. While tilting their head, use two fingers from your other hand to carefully raise their chin.

B = Breathing

Breathing supplies the body with life-giving oxygen. That’s why it’s crucial to determine whether someone is breathing or not.

To determine if a person is breathing normally, take these steps:

  1. Place your ear directly above the person’s mouth while looking down at their body.
  2. Check for the following signs of breathing:
    • sound of their breaths
    • feeling of their breath on your cheek
    • their chest moving up and down
  3. Continue to do this for no more than 10 seconds.

You can perform rescue breaths on someone who isn’t breathing. This helps you temporarily breathe for the other person. Rescue breaths, along with chest compressions, are given during cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

C = Circulation/Compression

While breathing enriches the blood with oxygen, it’s the beating of the heart that delivers this oxygen throughout the body. When organs and tissues don’t receive enough oxygen, they can begin to die.

If you find that a person isn’t breathing, chest compressions are vital for restoring blood circulation in the body.

In 2010, the American Heart Association issued updated first aid recommendations. As a part of this, the order that you perform the ABCs has been changed to CAB:

  1. Circulation/Compressions
  2. Airway
  3. Breathing

There are a couple of reasons for this change:

  • Addressing circulation first by performing chest compressions provides vital blood flow to organs like the brain and heart.
  • Chest compressions can be performed immediately, whereas checking the airway and effectively giving rescue breaths can take up crucial time.

Following the guideline update, the new CAB approach was compared to the old ABC approach. Studies found that the CAB approach was more favorable in providing a timely intervention.

The ‘D’ of first aid

Sometimes you may see an additional letter associated with the ABCs of first aid. This letter is D. It can mean a few different things:

  • Deadly bleeding. Check to see whether the person has severe bleeding. If you notice that they’re bleeding badly, call 911 or your local emergency services, and apply pressure to the wound until help arrives.
  • Defibrillation. This step involves using an electrical current to restore a normal heartbeat in someone who’s in cardiac arrest. It’s often done using a device called an automated external defibrillator (AED).
  • Disability. Check for any noticeable injuries or disabilities associated with the person’s current condition. Additionally, check their level of responsiveness to things like voices or pain.

You may be wondering what to do if you find yourself in an emergency situation. When faced with an emergency, focus on following the three steps below.

1. Check for danger

Assess your immediate surroundings for any signs of danger. Some examples include:

  • fires
  • downed power lines or other electrical hazards
  • flooding or fast-flowing water
  • chemical fumes
  • falling or flying debris
  • vehicles
  • violent people
  • aggressive animals

If the area appears clear of immediate dangers, proceed to the next step. If not, leave the area and call 911.

2. Call for help

If a person is unconscious, unresponsive, or seriously injured, call 911. If you’re around others, tell someone to make the call while you begin to provide care. If you’re alone, you can make the call yourself.

3. Provide first aid care

While you’re waiting for help to arrive, begin to provide first aid. If the person is conscious and alert, be sure to get their consent before providing care.

CPR is a first aid technique that’s used when an individual’s breathing or heartbeat has stopped. Follow the steps below to perform CPR on an adult.

CPR instructions

  1. Make sure the person is lying flat on their back and on a firm surface.
  2. Put the heel (base) of your hand at the center of the person’s chest. Place your other hand on top of it, interlacing your fingers.
  3. Make sure your shoulders are directly above your hands and that your arms are straight.
  4. Using the weight of your body, deliver chest compressions. These should compress the chest at least 2 inches and should be given quickly and steadily, at a rate of at least 100 compressions per minute.
  5. After 30 chest compressions, open the airway by gently tilting the person’s head back and their chin up.
  6. Pinch the person’s nostrils shut, placing your mouth over theirs to form a complete seal.
  7. Give a rescue breath by blowing steadily into the person’s mouth. If the person’s chest rises, give a second rescue breath. If it doesn’t, perform the airway opening step again, and then give a second rescue breath.
  8. Deliver another 30 chest compressions followed by two rescue breaths, repeating until help arrives.

Important: If you’re not trained in CPR, give hands-only CPR. This is CPR that involves only chest compressions without rescue breaths.

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The steps involved with performing CPR on a child are very similar to those for an adult.

You’ll still give cycles of 30 chest compressions and two rescue breaths. If the child is small, only use one hand for chest compressions instead of two.

For infants

When giving CPR to an infant, only use two fingers when delivering chest compressions. Compress the chest about 1.5 inches instead of 2 inches.

Rescue breaths are also performed slightly differently in infants:

  1. Place your mouth over the infant’s nose and mouth to form a complete seal.
  2. Use gentle puffs of air to deliver the rescue breath to the infant’s mouth.

Important: As with adults, give hands-only CPR if you’re not trained in CPR.

Where to get CPR training

If you’d like to become CPR certified, look into the following resources:

  • American Red Cross. The American Red cross offers first aid and CPR certification courses. Use their website to find classes near you.
  • American Heart Association. The American Heart Association also offers training in a variety of areas, including first aid and CPR. You can find classes in your area by visiting their website.
  • Local resources. It’s also possible that first aid and CPR courses may be offered in your community, often through your local fire department or school. Reach out to them for more details.
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There are some situations in which a person’s heart may still be beating but they’re unconscious. Many things can cause this, including:

If someone is unconscious and their heart is beating, you can follow the steps below while you wait for emergency services to arrive.

Check their breathing

If they’re breathing, proceed to the next step. If they’re not breathing, call 911 and do CPR until help arrives.

Move them into the recovery position

The recovery position helps keep a person’s airway open and prevent choking. To move someone into the recovery position:

  1. Kneel down on the floor beside them.
  2. Position their arm that’s nearest to you at a right angle to their body, with their palm facing upward.
  3. Bend their other arm so their hand rests under the cheek that’s closest to you. Hold it in place for steps 4 and 5.
  4. Using your free hand, bend their knee that’s farthest from you at a right angle so that it rests flat on the floor.
  5. Gently pull on their bent knee to roll them toward you and onto their side.
  6. Ensure that the hand of their bent arm is still supporting their head.
  7. Carefully open their airway by tilting their head back and lifting their chin. Check to see whether anything is blocking their airway.

Call for help

Once they’re in the recovery position, call 911. Stay with them to monitor their condition until help arrives.


Moving an individual with a spinal injury may worsen their condition. Avoid moving a person with a suspected spinal injury until EMS arrive.

Someone may have a spinal injury in situations where:

  • there’s evidence of an accident, such as a car wreck or a fall
  • they’re conscious and complain of pain in their neck or back, or have symptoms like numbness or weakness
  • you notice they’ve lost control of their bladder or bowels

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In addition to scenarios when someone isn’t breathing, has no heartbeat, or is unconscious, there are additional circumstances when it’s important to call an ambulance.

Call 911 right away for situations that involve:

In an emergency situation, there are some important steps to remember when giving first aid. These are often referred to as the “ABCs of first aid.” According to updated guidelines, it’s important to perform them in this order:

  1. Circulation/compressions
  2. Airway
  3. Breathing

CPR is a first aid technique that’s closely associated with the ABCs. It consists of giving cycles of chest compressions and rescue breaths.

In addition to scenarios that involve no breathing or heartbeat, there are other life threatening conditions that require immediate medical attention. These include but aren’t limited to situations where a person is unconscious, has trouble breathing, is bleeding heavily, or has severe burns.