Rescue breathing is a type of first aid that’s given to people who have stopped breathing. During rescue breathing, you blow air into a person’s mouth to supply them with vital oxygen.
Rescue breathing can be done alone or as a part of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). The technique used can vary based on whether it’s being performed on an adult or a child.
In this article, we’ll discuss the rescue breathing technique in more detail, when it’s needed, and how it differs from CPR.
Oxygen is essential for life. When you breathe, oxygen enters your bloodstream through tiny air sacs in your lungs called alveoli. Once in your bloodstream, oxygen can travel to every part of your body.
Rescue breathing is a first aid technique that’s done when someone has stopped breathing (also known as respiratory arrest). Rescue breathing is also referred to as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Situations that may cause breathing to stop can include the following:
- an injury due to a fall, car accident, or electrical shock
- a stroke
- something stuck in the windpipe
- conditions that make it difficult to breathe, such as pneumonia, asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD)
- a drug or alcohol overdose
- an inhalation injury from breathing in smoke or chemical fumes
When you perform rescue breathing, you gently blow air into a person’s mouth. This helps supply them with vital oxygen until medical help arrives.
Rescue breaths can be given alone or as a part of CPR. Because of this, you may be wondering how the two are different.
Rescue breaths can be given alone when a person has a pulse but isn’t breathing. CPR is done when a person’s heartbeat and breathing have stopped. CPR involves cycles of chest compressions and rescue breathing.
It’s not uncommon for cardiac arrest (stopping of the heartbeat) to happen shortly after respiratory arrest. Because of this, you may find that giving CPR is more common in an emergency situation as opposed to giving rescue breaths alone.
There are some instances where rescue breathing isn’t recommended. This is most applicable when rescue breathing is given as a part of CPR.
The American Heart Association (AHA) updated their CPR guidelines
- People without CPR training give hands-only CPR. This is CPR that uses only chest compressions without rescue breaths. In this situation, you’d give quick, uninterrupted chest compressions until help arrives.
- Chest compressions come before rescue breathing. You may have heard of the ABCs of first aid, which stands for airway, breathing, and compressions. This acronym has now been updated to CAB (compressions, airway, breathing), with chest compressions ahead of breathing.
These changes came about because the process of opening the airway and effectively giving rescue breaths can take up vital time. Under the new guidelines, promptly starting chest compressions can help pump still-oxygenated blood to the body’s tissues.
Research supports these changes. For example, a 2017 review found that, when CPR is given by a bystander, just giving chest compressions increased survival compared to CPR that involved both chest compressions and rescue breathing.
Step 1: Call 911
If you encounter someone who is unresponsive and isn’t breathing, call 911. If you’re in a group, ask another person to call while you proceed to the next step.
Important notes: In a situation where someone has a pulse but isn’t breathing, it’s important to be aware of the following:
- Someone who isn’t breathing or isn’t breathing well may make occasional gasping sounds. This isn’t the same thing as normal breathing.
- Respiratory arrest can sometimes happen before cardiac arrest. If at any point you notice that the person’s pulse has stopped, begin CPR immediately.
Step 2: Open the airway
To effectively give rescue breaths, it’s essential that the person’s airway is open and clear. To open a person’s airway, do the following:
- Place your hand on their forehead.
- Gently tilt their head back.
- Use the fingers of your other hand to carefully lift their chin upward.
Step 3: Give rescue breaths
Now that the airway is open, you can proceed to give rescue breaths. To do this:
- Use the fingers of one hand to pinch the person’s nostrils shut. This helps to prevent air from escaping through their nose.
- Cover their mouth with yours, forming a seal so that air doesn’t escape.
- Give rescue breaths by gently breathing into their mouth. A rescue breath should last about 1 second. Aim to give a rescue breath every 5 to 6 seconds. This is about 10 to 12 breaths per minute.
- Check to see if the person’s chest rises as you give the first rescue breath. If it doesn’t, repeat step 2 (open the airway) before giving additional rescue breaths.
- Continue giving rescue breaths until emergency medical services (EMS) arrives or the person begins breathing normally on their own.
Important note: It’s also possible to give rescue breaths mouth-to-nose. This is an option when a person’s mouth is too injured to effectively give rescue breaths using a mouth-to-mouth technique.
The steps for rescue breathing on a child or infant are similar to those for adults. However, there are some important things to be aware of.
The technique used for rescue breaths can depend on the size of the child:
- Infants and small children. Form a seal around both the mouth and nose when giving rescue breaths. If it’s difficult to form a good seal this way, try a mouth-to-nose or mouth-to-mouth technique instead.
- Older children. Use the mouth-to-mouth technique.
Frequency of breaths
The number of breaths given per minute is slightly higher for children and infants than for adults.
Aim to give 12 to 20 rescue breaths per minute for a child or infant that isn’t breathing. This is about 1 rescue breath every 3 to 5 seconds.
If you’d like to be trained in CPR and rescue breathing, consider checking out classes offered by the American Red Cross or
Local resources like schools and fire departments may have classes as well.
Rescue breathing is a type of first aid that’s used if someone has stopped breathing. During rescue breathing, you gently breathe into a person’s mouth every few seconds. This helps provide them with oxygen until help arrives. Rescue breathing isn’t the same as CPR.
CPR is done when a person isn’t breathing and doesn’t have a pulse. It involves cycles of chest compressions and rescue breathing. However, it’s recommended that individuals that aren’t trained in CPR only give chest compressions, without rescue breathing, if someone doesn’t have a heartbeat.