Think you’ve got first-aid down pat? Think again. Much of what most people know about first-aid comes from outdated practices or old wives’ tales, or was passed down through generations of the family until it became fact.
And if your great-great-grandmother says you should pour hydrogen peroxide over a scraped knee, you believe her.
It’s time to stop trusting your great-great-grandmother and start trusting first-aid experts like Nici Singletary, MD, FACEP, a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council.
She gave us the lowdown on six first-aid mistakes people make all the time—and what to do instead.
Mistake: You don’t pull the splinter out.
Contrary to popular belief, your body will not push a splinter out on its own. And the longer you leave it in, the harder it will be to get out. “If you wait for it to work its way out, a wood splinter will just soak up the moisture in your body, become softer, and be harder to remove,” says Singletary. The same goes for the idea that a baking soda paste will draw out the wood. All it does, according to Singletary, adds extra moisture to your skin and make the wood split even more. The best bet for a splinter just underneath the skin is to grab some tweezers and get it out right away. Singletary warns, however, that a splinter of glass or metal, or a large chunk of wood that gets stuck deep into the skin, requires medical care.
Mistake: You tip your head back to stop a bloody nose.
Although it is best to elevate some injuries (like a swollen ankle), elevating a bloody nose is a big no-no, says Singletary. When you tip your head back, all of the blood runs down your throat. You swallow it, it irritates your stomach, and then you throw up. “When you throw up, what comes up is blood,” says Singletary. “And that makes people scared that there’s something seriously wrong with them.” But even if you don’t end up hovering over the toilet bowl, tipping your head back has consequences. When the blood runs down your throat, it doesn’t run out your nose—making you think the bleeding has stopped when it really hasn’t. Instead, lean slightly forward and pinch your nostrils. Apply pressure for 5 to 10 minutes and then check to see that the bleeding has stopped.
Singletary warns that anyone taking blood thinners should be cautious about any type of bleeding and might want to consider seeing a doctor, especially if the bleeding hasn’t stopped after 10 to 15 minutes.
Mistake: You use rubbing alcohol to cool a fever.
Although she says it’s going out of fashion, Singletary warns this first-aid myth is a dangerous mistake. “It’s toxic, and there are many reports of children who have been put into comas from that toxicity,” says Singletary. And it doesn’t just make children sick. It can be toxic to adults as well. “Alcohol evaporates quickly, and the evaporation makes your skin feel cooler,” says Singletary. “That’s how it became popular.” But the alcohol doesn’t affect your core temperature and does nothing to break the fever. Instead, it seeps into your skin and can cause alcohol poisoning. Singletary suggests sticking to bed rest, fluids, and pain relievers, and says you can alternate between ibuprofen and acetaminophen so you’re taking something every 3 hours.
Mistake: You pour hydrogen peroxide on an open wound.
For most of us, when you cut yourself or scraped a knee as a kid, the first thing Mom would do is grab the bottle of hydrogen peroxide. Little white bubbles would form as she poured the liquid over your boo-boo—proof that the germs were dying, right? Wrong. “Yeah, that was the hydrogen peroxide damaging your tissues,” says Singletary. Hydrogen peroxide breaks down cell walls. So while it does kill bacteria, it also kills all the healthy cells surrounding the cut, slowing the healing process and possibly making scars worse. Instead, wash your cut or scrape with soap and tap water. The pressure from the tap will help remove dirt and debris while the soap will disinfect.
Mistake: You butter a burn.
OK, we know most of you probably realize that butter isn’t going to cool down your skin. But this tip applies to any other type of oil as well, including petroleum jelly and antibiotic ointments. The oils will coat your skin and actually slow its ability to release the heat, causing more damage as the burn keeps burning. The best way to take care of a burn is to run it under cool water, but not just for 30 seconds. To truly treat a burn, you’ll have to keep it under the faucet for up to 20 minutes—yes, really—and then keep the area dry. That means no ointments and no bandages. Instead, Singletary suggests covering the burned area in plastic wrap, which is porous and sterile. This lets the burn heal in a dry environment, but protects against germs that might infect the wound.
Mistake: You use fingers to get things out of your eye.
The wind picks up and a small amount of dirt flies into your eye. What’s your first instinct? To rub it, of course. But most people already know rubbing your eyes is a no-no. It’ll just move the dirt around and scratch the surface of your eye. But sticking your finger in to pull out an eyelash or the speck of dust is just as bad. Your hands are some of the dirtiest parts of your body, and they can easily introduce infection-carrying bacteria to your eye.
Instead, rinse your eye under tap water or with a saline solution (hello, contact lens cleaner) until it feels better. Accidently sprayed cleaning chemicals in your eye? Well, then you’ll want to rinse for at least 15 minutes with your head tilted to the side so you don’t wash the chemicals right into your other eye. Singletary also suggests contacting your local poison control center to find out exactly what you just sprayed into your eye and whether you’ll need further medical care.