Conscious vs unconscious – how to tell the difference

It may seem like a silly question, but can you really quickly and confidently tell the difference between a person who is unconscious, and one who is conscious?

The reason this is so important is because in First Aid there are completely different ways you treat a conscious person versus an unconscious one.

For example, if you were walking down the street and you saw a person lying in middle of the footpath and you called 000, one of the first questions the operator will ask you is “Is the person conscious?”.

If you can’t tell quickly, and with certainty, you may end up giving them the wrong First Aid.

The way to tell the difference between the conscious state and unconscious state is fairly simple.

But first you need to understand there are not just two states of awareness for a person - either they are 100% Conscious or they are 100% Unconscious.

Consciousness is actually a gradient scale from one extreme to the other. In between 100% Conscious and 100% Unconscious lay many degrees of consciousness and awareness. For example, somewhere between those two extremes is the state of sleeping.

When someone is asleep they are not generally aware of their surroundings, so you can say they have some degree of unconsciousness. But because you can wake them from sleep, they are not considered to be fully unconscious.

And this is the key to determining the state of consciousness of a person. Can they be easily woken and roused from their current state? If they can, they are not unconscious. If they can’t, they are unconscious.

By roused we mean, can you shake their shoulders a bit or tap them on the cheek and say “hello, hello, can you hear me” or something similar. If they respond they are not unconscious. If you can’t wake them, they are definitely unconscious and unable to respond to commands or the environment.

In this case you apply the First Aid techniques appropriate to an unconscious person. If you don’t know what these are, it’s time you got trained with us!