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First aid basics we should all know

Accidents happen. Do you know how to help someone who’s injured?

Health Agenda
July 2017

Having someone who’s trained in first aid on the scene of an accident can be life-saving, but it’s estimated that fewer than 1 in 3 households has anyone with up-to-date skills.

“First aid is simple and everyone should know what to do in the first few minutes of an accident,” says Fairlie Tucker, National First Aid Training Manager at St John Ambulance Australia. “A lot of people hesitate to act because they’re not confident of their ability but if you know the basics you have the tools to spring into action.”

Bleeding

“When it comes to bleeding, always apply pressure and keep the wound raised,” says Tucker.

  • Using a pad, fabric, or even hands, put firm pressure on the wound. Ideally, the casualty should do this themselves. If possible, maintain pressure by bandaging the wound.
  • Keep pressure on the wound to slow blood flow, and look for a way to support the injury until medical help arrives.
  • If an object, like a stick, is embedded in the wound, don’t pull it out, says Janie McCullagh, a Red Cross Senior First Aid Trainer in Brisbane. “The object will be plugging the wound, so you’re better off leaving it there. Pulling it out will make the bleeding worse.”

“The most important thing is keeping pressure constant until medical help arrives,” says Tucker. If a wound bleeds through a bandage, “leave the original bandage on and keep adding more on top of it.”

On your own? Apply pressure and call 000 if it’s more than a minor cut. “Keep pressure on the wound and keep as still and stable as possible until help arrives,” says McCullagh.

Burns

“There are many myths surrounding burns and scalds,” says Tucker. “Some people still think you should put butter on a burn but that’s the worst thing you can do because it can warm the skin further.”

  • As soon as possible, run the affected area under cool running water. “It’s important the water is running so that it remains at a constant cool temperature,” says Tucker. 
  • Keep the burn under cool running water for at least 20 minutes. Research shows this is the best way to reduce the depth of the burn, heal the skin and minimise scarring.
  • Cover the area with a loose non-stick material, like plastic cling wrap, to keep it clean and reduce pain caused by air on the skin’s surface.

“If the area of the burn is bigger than a 20-cent piece, or involves the airway, genitals, or is on a child, get medical attention immediately,” says Tucker.

Choking

Forget the Heimlich manoeuvre. “It may not be effective and may even damage internal organs,” says Tucker.

  • Ask the choking person to cough. This can help remove the object. 
  • If coughing doesn’t help, call 000.
  • Then, getting the person to lean forward, find the middle of their upper back and use the heel of your hand to give a sharp blow between the shoulder blades. Check to see if they’ve brought up the object. Do this up to 5 times.
  • If they’re still choking, support their back with one hand and using the heel of the other hand, thrust at the centre of their chest. Check if this removes the object. Do this up to 5 times.
  • Treating an infant? It’s the same, but support their head, neck and body on your thigh
  • On your own? Try leaning forward and coughing forcefully. “If you still can’t breathe, put your back up against a wall and thrust your back [between your shoulders] against the wall,” says McCullagh. “It’s the same principle of a blow to the back.”

Drowning

Follow the DRS-ABCD protocol taught in CPR training, says Tucker. Don’t jump in if the water isn’t safe or if you’re a poor swimmer.

  • If a person isn’t breathing after being pulled from the water, begin basic life support with CPR. 
  • If they’re unconscious but breathing, put them into the recovery position to help drain water from their airway and to maintain an open airway. 
  • Always have them medically examined afterwards. “They may have what is known as ‘dry drowning’ where they’ve inhaled water into their lungs,” says McCullagh.

Fainting

  • If the person is unconscious and breathing, place them in the recovery position, says McCullagh. “Put them on their side, call 000.”
  • On your own? If you feel faint, call 000 and try to get yourself in the recovery position on your side, says McCullagh. “You want to be in the safest position in case you slip into unconsciousness.”

Fractures, dislocations and sprains

It can be hard to tell the difference between a fracture and sprain, says Tucker. “If in doubt, treat the injury as a fracture and try to immobilise the limb until you get medical help.”

  • Help the person find a comfortable position, then immobilise and support the injury until help arrives. Call an ambulance immediately if pain is significant or the injury involves the thigh, hips, ribs or head.
  • Don’t try to realign a fracture or dislocation.
  • A splint can help immobilise the limb. “A tree branch, even a rolled-up magazine or newspaper will work,” says McCullagh.
  • If you think the injury is most likely a sprain, use the RICER – Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation, Refer – plan. Help the person into a comfortable position; use an ice pack on the injury for 10-20 minutes at a time; compress in a crepe bandage; then try to keep the injury elevated as much as possible for the next 24-48 hours; refer the person to medical help.

Learn more about treating fractures and dislocations.

Sharpen up your skills

Nothing beats proper first aid training, and even if you’ve already done a course St John recommends a refresher CPR course at least once a year with a first aid refresher at least every three years. Red Cross also runs classes.

First aid apps, like the St John and Red Cross apps, can also help.

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