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At any moment, you or someone around you could experience an injury or illness. Using basic first aid, you may be able to stop a minor mishap from getting worse. In the case of a serious medical emergency, you may even save a life.
That’s why it’s so important to learn basic first aid skills. To build on the information you learn here, considering taking a first aid course. Many organizations offer first aid training, including the American Red Cross and St. John Ambulance.
When you provide basic medical care to someone experiencing a sudden injury or illness, it’s known as first aid.
In some cases, first aid consists of the initial support provided to someone in the middle of a medical emergency. This support might help them survive until professional help arrives.
In other cases, first aid consists of the care provided to someone with a minor injury. For example, first aid is often all that’s needed to treat minor burns, cuts, and insect stings.
If you encounter an emergency situation, follow these three basic steps:
1. Check the scene for danger
Look for anything that might be dangerous, like signs of fire, falling debris, or violent people. If your safety is at risk, remove yourself from the area and call for help.
If the scene is safe, assess the condition of the sick or injured person. Don’t move them unless you must do so to protect them from danger.
2. Call for medical help, if needed
If you suspect the sick or injured person needs emergency medical care, tell a nearby person to call 911 or the local number for emergency medical services. If you’re alone, make the call yourself.
3. Provide care
If you can do so safely, remain with the sick or injured person until professional help arrives. Cover them with a warm blanket, comfort them, and try to keep them calm. If you have basic first aid skills, try to treat any potentially life-threatening injuries they have.
Remove yourself from danger if at any point in the situation you think your safety might be at risk.
In many cases, you can use an adhesive bandage to cover minor cuts, scrapes, or burns. To cover and protect larger wounds, you might need to apply a clean gauze pad or roller bandage.
To apply a roller bandage to a wound, follow these steps:
- Hold the injured area steady.
- Gently but firmly wrap the bandage around the injured limb or body part, covering the wound.
- Fasten the bandage with sticky tape or safety pins.
- The bandage should be wrapped firmly enough to stay put, but not so tightly that it cuts off blood flow.
To check the circulation in a bandaged limb, pinch one of the person’s fingernails or toenails until the color drains from the nail. If color doesn’t return within two seconds of letting go, the bandage is too tight and needs to be adjusted.
If you suspect that someone has a third-degree burn, call 911. Seek professional medical care for any burns that:
- cover a large area of skin
- are located on the person’s face, groin, buttocks, hands, or feet
- have been caused by contact with chemicals or electricity
To treat a minor burn, run cool water over the affected area for up to 15 minutes. If that’s not possible, apply a cool compress to the area instead. Avoid applying ice to burned tissue. It can cause more damage.
Over-the-counter pain relievers can help relieve pain. Applying lidocaine or an aloe vera gel or cream can also reduce discomfort from minor burns.
To help prevent infection, apply an antibiotic ointment and loosely cover the burn with clean gauze.
If you see someone collapse or find someone unconscious, call 911. If the area around the unconscious person seems safe, approach them and begin CPR.
Even if you don’t have formal training, you can use hands-only CPR to help keep someone alive until professional help arrives.
Here’s how to treat an adult with hands-only CPR:
- Place both hands on the center of their chest, with one hand on top of the other.
- Press straight down to compress their chest repeatedly, at a rate of about 100 to 120 compressions per minute.
- Compressing the chest to the beat of “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees or “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé can help you count at the correct rate.
- Continue performing chest compressions until professional help arrives.
For some people, a bee sting is a medical emergency. If a person is having an allergic reaction to a bee sting, call 911. If they have an epinephrine auto-injector (like an EpiPen), help them find and use it. Encourage them to remain calm until help arrives.
Someone who’s stung by a bee and showing no signs of an allergic reaction can usually be treated without professional help.
If the stinger is still stuck under the skin, gently scrape a credit card or other flat object across their skin to remove it. Then wash the area with soap and water and apply a cool compress for up to 10 minutes at a time to reduce pain and swelling.
To treat itching or pain from the sting, consider applying calamine lotion or a paste of baking soda and water to the area several times a day.
To treat someone with a nosebleed, ask them to:
- Sit down and lean their head forward.
- Using the thumb and index finger, firmly press or pinch the nostrils closed.
- Continue to apply this pressure continuously for five minutes.
- Check and repeat until the bleeding stops.
If you have nitrile of vinyl gloves, you can press or pinch their nostril closed for them.
If the nosebleed continues for 20 minutes or longer, seek emergency medical care. The person should also receive follow-up care if an injury caused the nosebleed.
When your body overheats, it can cause heat exhaustion. If left untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke. This is a potentially life-threatening condition and medical emergency.
If someone is overheated, encourage them to rest in a cool location. Remove excess layers of clothing and try to cool their body down by doing the following:
- Cover them with a cool, damp sheet.
- Apply a cool, wet towel to the back of their neck.
- Sponge them with cool water.
Call 911 if they develop signs or symptoms of heatstroke, including any of the following:
- nausea or vomiting
- mental confusion
- a fever of 104°F (40°C) or greater
If they’re not vomiting or unconscious, encourage them to sip cool water or a sports drink.
If you think someone might be experiencing a heart attack, call 911. If they’ve been prescribed nitroglycerin, help them locate and take this medication. Cover them with a blanket and comfort them until professional help arrives.
If they have difficulty breathing, loosen any clothing around their chest and neck. Start CPR if they lose consciousness.
To prepare for potential emergencies, it’s a good idea to keep a well-stocked first aid kit in your home and car. You can buy preassembled first aid kits or make your own.
If you have a baby, you might need to replace or supplement some of the products in a standard first aid kit with infant-appropriate alternatives. For example, your kit should include an infant thermometer and infant acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
It’s also important to store the kit in a place where your baby can’t reach it.
Ask your pediatrician or family doctor for more information about infant-friendly first aid.
You never know when you might need to provide basic first aid. To prepare for the unpredictable, considering storing a well-stocked first aid kit in your home and car. It’s also a good idea to have a first aid kit available at work.
You can buy preassembled first aid kits from many first aid organizations, pharmacies, or outdoor recreation stores. Alternatively, you can create your own first aid kit using products purchased from a pharmacy.
A standard first aid kit should include:
- adhesive bandages of assorted sizes
- roller bandages of assorted sizes
- absorbent compress dressings
- sterile gauze pads
- adhesive cloth tape
- triangular bandages
- antiseptic wipes
- acetaminophen or ibuprofen
- antibiotic ointment
- hydrocortisone cream
- calamine lotion
- nitrile or vinyl gloves
- safety pins
- breathing barrier
- instant cold pack
- first aid manual
It’s also smart to include a list of your healthcare providers, emergency contact numbers, and prescribed medications in your first aid kits.
It’s important to protect yourself from contagious illnesses and other hazards when providing first aid. To help protect yourself:
- Always check for hazards that could put your safety at risk before approaching a sick or injured person.
- Avoid direct contact with blood, vomit, and other bodily fluids.
- Wear protective equipment, such as nitrile or vinyl gloves when treating someone with an open wound or a breathing barrier when performing rescue breathing.
- Wash your hands with soap and water immediately after providing first aid care.
In many cases, basic first aid can help stop a minor situation from getting worse. In the case of a medical emergency, first aid might even save a life. If someone has a serious injury or illness, they should receive follow-up care from a medical professional.