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Unconsciousness differs from simple sleep in that an unconscious person cannot be woken even with strong stimuli like pain (a good way to test this is by pinching them strongly in the side of the armpit).

True unconsciousness is a severely and immediately life-threatening condition!

This is because it can disable several important reflexes related to breathing, namely the reflex that keeps your tongue from slipping back and sealing your windpipe, and the coughing reflex which prevents you from suffocating on your own vomit (aspiration). And unfortunately, many causes of unconsciousness also induce vomiting...

The best way to prevent this is by immediately placing unconscious persons into a stable side position (also known as lateral position or coma position); this is one of the most important lessons ins first aid course.

The stable side position has definite priority over the often-heard principle to not move injured persons to avoid making the injury worse including suspected spinal injuries! It's better to be paraplegic than to be dead. Of course, you should still be as careful as possible.

Please note: If a person is unconsious because of a severe trauma such as a car accident or a sports accident, to decrease the risk of spinal injury, move the head, shoulders and back as one unit if you have the proper training. Do not attempt to move the person if you have no prior experience, as you may cause him more injury! It works best when two people move the victim in tandem, with one person holding the head and shoulders steady and the other helping to roll the victim over. Also, not only does this side position prevent suffocation due to blood in the lungs, aspiration, etc. it also makes it easier for paramedics to place a neck brace and backboard on the person when they arrive.

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