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Common First Aid Mistakes

When you're scrambling to make a burn feel better or stop a bleeding wound, it helps to know what to do. We've all heard some common first aid folklore. But rather than helping, those first aid myths can actually make things worse. Here are a few common first aid mistakes and advice on what you should do instead.

Mistake: Putting butter on a burn

You've likely heard the tip to put butter on a burn. But this is bad advice. Any greasy substance on a burn keeps heat in. This could make it hard for a burn to heal or be correctly treated.

What to do: Run cold water over the burn to ease the pain. Then gently dry the area and keep it loosely covered. If it starts to blister, changes color, or seems infected, get medical care right away.

Mistake: Using ipecac syrup to cause vomiting

When someone swallows a poisonous chemical, you might think that having them vomit it up right away would help. In the past, a medicine called ipecac syrup was used to cause vomiting. But ipecac syrup has been discontinued and should  not be used. In some cases of poisoning, experts say it's best not to induce vomiting. It can even cause more damage. Some substances actually can be worse for you when they are vomited up again.

What to do: Call your healthcare provider or the national Poison Control Center (800-222-1222) right away for advice about what to do. Ipecac syrup is no longer sold. Don't keep old bottles of ipecac syrup in your home. They can be accidentally used in an emergency by someone who doesn't know better.

Mistake: Putting heat on a sprain or fracture

Heat can be soothing for aches and pains. But you shouldn't apply heat to a sprain or fracture. Heat will only increase the swelling.

What to do: Apply ice or an ice pack for about 20 minutes. To make an ice pack, put ice cubes in a plastic bag that seals at the top. Wrap the bag in a clean, thin towel or cloth to protect your skin. Never put ice or an ice pack directly on the skin. Use the RICE treatment of rest, ice, compression, and elevation for the first 24 hours. 

Mistake: Putting hot water on frozen skin

You might be tempted to run hot water over a frozen patch of skin or an arm or leg (limb) to warm it up. But this increases the risk of damaging the skin if the water is too hot.

What to do: Slowly warm the skin or limb with a warm—not hot—water bath.

Mistake: Using rubbing alcohol to bring down a fever

Wiping rubbing alcohol on your skin makes your skin feel cooler. But this cooling doesn't help that much when you have a fever. In addition, alcohol can be soaked up through the skin. For small children and infants in particular, this increases the risk of alcohol poisoning.

What to do: Try a medicine that reduces fever and contains ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Call your healthcare provider if you don't know what to do or if the fever doesn't go away.

Mistake: Using a tourniquet for a snakebite

After a snakebite, it may seem like a good idea to tie off blood flow to prevent poisons from spreading. But that might just cause more harm. In some cases, the poison is then concentrated in one area where it can be damaging. In other cases, damage happens with the sudden release of snake venom into the blood once the tourniquet is taken off.

What to do: The most important step is to calm the person who was bitten. Help them to keep the bitten body part completely still. This slows the flow of venom in the body. Since swelling can become severe, remove jewelry and tight clothing from areas near the bite. A medicine called antivenom (antivenin) is the most effective treatment for most poisonous snakebites. But this is a complicated situation that needs expert treatment. Get emergency medical aid as quickly as possible.

Mistake: Using a tourniquet to stop a bleeding wound

For a deep wound in an arm or leg, you may think about tying a tourniquet around the thigh or upper arm to stop the bleeding. But that could stop the flow of blood to the entire limb. This could cause serious damage.

What to do: Apply direct downward pressure on the wound (use a thick layer of sterile gauze under your hands if it's available). Then wrap the wound securely when the bleeding stops. If it continues to bleed or seems to need stitches, get medical care. But if bleeding is severe and can't be stopped or slowed down with direct pressure, and you think the person's life is in danger because of the bleeding, use a tourniquet (at least 3-inches wide) just above the wound (toward the heart) and pull it tightly. Call 911 and get medical care right away.

Mistake: Rubbing your eye to remove a foreign object

When you have a speck of dirt or some other small object in your eye, the feeling can be extremely annoying. You may want to rub your eye to remove the object. But don't rub your eye. Rubbing your eye when there is a foreign object in it can cause more damage to your eye.

What to do: Tears alone likely won't be enough to wash out the object. Instead, rinse your eye with clean tap water. Get medical care if the feeling continues.

Online Medical Reviewer: Eric Perez MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Ronald Karlin MD
Date Last Reviewed: 7/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.