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As medical professionals scramble to obtain enough beds, protective gear, and personnel to handle the surge of coronavirus patients, another bleak new reality is emerging: Some hospitals and clinics are turning people away if they do not have a life-and-death emergency.
What does this mean for the parents whose child breaks an arm during this crisis? Or the cook who suffers a nasty burn? Or the homeowner who gets a bad cut while doing some fence repairs?
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There has never been a better time to learn — or relearn — some basic first aid skills. By reviewing these skills now, before an accident happens, you will be able to stay calm and help yourself or someone else with a minor injury that might otherwise take you to urgent care.
What is First Aid?
First aid involves simple, sometimes life-saving techniques that most people can perform with no previous medical experience and with minimal equipment. The best first aid is a combination of these simple techniques and common sense.
First aid should not be considered as medical treatment, and the steps in this article do not constitute medical advice. If someone requires emergency care, call 911.
Basic First Aid for Burns
The severity of a burn depends on its size and its depth. Here’s what to do:
- The first step to treating a burn is simple – stop the burning process. Clean off the chemicals, turn off the electricity, get out of the hot water or the sun, etc.
- Next, flush the burned area with cool running water for three to five minutes. Do not apply ice, butter, ointments or lotions. Do not break any blisters.
- Apply a light gauze non-adhesive bandage or clean cloth to the area.
- Take a pain reliever if needed.
Here’s a video that goes over the basic steps for treating a minor burn. Seek medical help for severe burns.
Basic First Aid for Fractures
Until you get an X-ray, it’s important to treat a suspected broken bone as if it really is broken. The symptoms and the initial first aid treatment of a sprain are almost the same as that for a fracture.
Here are some dos and don’ts:
- Don’t try to straighten the limb.
- Do stabilize the arm or leg using a splint (folded cardboard or newspaper will work) to keep it immobile.
- Place a cold pack on the area of injury but not directly on the skin.
- Elevate the limb.
- Take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen or naproxen.
Here is a video that explains the steps for fracture first aid. See a doctor for further treatment.
Basic First Aid for Skin Wounds
Many minor wounds can be treated successfully at home by following these steps:
- Gently cleanse the wound with soap and warm water. Rinse well to prevent irritation. Avoid hydrogen peroxide or iodine, which can further damage tissue.
- Apply antibiotic cream to reduce the risk of infection and then cover the area with a sterile bandage.
- Replace the dressing daily to keep the area clean and dry.
Seek medical attention under the following conditions:
- The wound is deep, or the edges are jagged.
- It has dirt or debris that does not wash out.
- The wound shows signs of infection, such as red streaks or a thick discharge.
- The person has a fever.
- The skin surrounding the wound feels numb.
- The wound is the result of a bite by an animal or human.
- There is a deep cut or puncture, and the person has not had a tetanus shot in the past 10 years.
Basic First Aid for Bleeding
Here’s what to do if someone is bleeding badly:
- Apply direct pressure to a bleeding cut or wound with a clean cloth or gauze until the bleeding stops. If blood soaks through the cloth, don’t remove the cloth. Instead, place more cloth on top of it and continue to apply pressure.
- If possible, raise the injured limb above the heart to help slow the bleeding.
- If the bleeding is severe and does not stop after 10 minutes of firm, direct pressure, call 911.
The Red Cross offers some detailed information on tourniquets here.
Basic First Aid for Bee Stings
Bee stings can vary from person to person in their pain and severity. Here’s what to do:
- If you know the person is allergic to bee stings, call 911 immediately and use an EpiPen if available.
- Otherwise, remove the stinger to prevent more poison from being delivered into the body.
- Place a cold pack on the area (not directly on the skin) to reduce swelling.
- Take an antihistamine (such as Benadryl) to reduce itching and swelling.
You may need medical attention if the person shows signs of anaphylaxis, which can include hives, redness, or itching in other areas of the body as well as shortness of breath.
Basic First Aid for Frostbite
Frostbite is the opposite of a burn, but it damages the skin in much the same way. Here are some dos and don’ts:
- Do warm the skin gradually.
- Don’t rub the damaged skin, and avoid the extreme heat of hot packs or other heat sources.
- Do use skin-to-skin contact to slowly warm small areas of minor frostbite.
Another remedy for minor frostbite is to place the affected area in warm – not hot – water for 20 minutes or so to gradually warm it.
Seek medical help for extreme frostbite cases.
Basic First Aid for Eyes
It is important to act fast if someone gets a chemical or other foreign substance in their eyes. Here are steps for flushing the eyes:
- Remove contact lenses, which can trap chemicals or debris, making the problem worse.
- Tilt the person’s head down, with the painful eye at the lowest point. This position prevents materials from spreading to the other eye and allows the flushing liquid to flow from the inner eye to the outer corner.
- Cover the person’s neck and clothes with a towel.
- Flush the eye with clean water for 10 to 15 minutes, keeping the eye open as much as possible. Ask the person to look up, down, and sideways during the procedure to make sure the liquid is moving throughout the eye area and under the eyelid.
- If the irritant was a chemical, more flushing and medical attention likely is needed.
- Cover the eye with a gauze pad and avoid rubbing the eye as you seek a doctor’s advice.
Here is a video on eye first aid.
Basic First Aid for Head Injuries
Severe head injuries require medical attention. Call 911 immediately.
However, mild head injuries may be treated and monitored at home. Symptoms of a mild head injury can include some bleeding or bruising, a mild headache, and mild dizziness or nausea. Here’s what to do:
- Apply a cold pack to the area to reduce swelling.
- The person can take acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain relief but should avoid anti-inflammatory pain relievers (such as ibuprofen and aspirin) without a doctor’s advice.
- Monitor the person closely for any signs of confusion or memory loss for 24 hours after a mild head injury. Consult doctor if these conditions arise.
Basic First Aid for Choking
The Heimlich maneuver can save a person from an accidental death from choking. When a person is choking, they cannot inhale or exhale air due to an obstruction in the throat. That means that they cannot speak or cough.
Developed in 1972, the Heimlich maneuver uses a series of abdominal thrusts to force the object out. By pushing on the diaphragm, the procedure creates an artificial cough.
If two people are available during a choking incident, one should call 911 while the other performs the Heimlich maneuver.
If the adult or child over the age of one is conscious but cannot speak, cough, or breathe, follow these steps immediately:
- Stand (or kneel) behind the person with your arms wrapped around their waist.
- Make a fist with one hand. Position the thumb side of the fist against the person’s stomach, below their ribs and above their belly button.
- Place your other hand over the fist and push into the diaphragm with a rapid, strong and upward thrust.
- Continue thrusts until the object comes out.
Watch this video for a demonstration:
For infants under the age of one, follow these steps:
- Position the baby face down on your forearm with baby’s head lower than their chest.
- Support the baby’s head with your hand and with your forearm resting on your thigh.
- Make sure the baby’s mouth and nose are not covered.
- Use the heel of your other hand to smack the baby on the back between the shoulder blades four times. Repeat the process until the object comes out.
Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)
If someone is not breathing, performing CPR can save their life. There are many basic online resources, such as the one below, for learning CPR and its two main steps – applying chest compressions and then providing breaths.
You can also take an official CPR certification online from the Red Cross. You can learn on your own schedule in only a few hours. Visit RedCross.org to find out more.
Basic First Aid Kits
Finally, now is an excellent time to make sure your home first aid kit is well stocked. Store your kit in a cool, dry place away from children, and you may want to have a kit in your vehicle as well.
A basic first aid kit should include the following supplies:
- Band-aids in different sizes and shapes.
- A variety of sizes of gauze dressings.
- Two sterile eye dressings.
- Triangular bandages.
- Crêpe rolled bandages.
- Safety pins.
- Disposable sterile gloves.
- Alcohol-free cleansing wipes.
- Medical tape.
- Digital thermometer.
- Hydrocortisone or calendula skin cream.
- Spray or ointment for insect bites and stings.
- Antibiotic skin cream.
- Pain relievers for children and adults.
- Cough medicine.
- Eyewash and eye bath.
Many pre-assembled first aid kits are available. Here are a few choices on Amazon.
Your most important tool in any emergency is keeping a cool head. As we navigate through these stressful and unusual times, remember that the most essential component of first aid is common sense.
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