8 First Aid Tricks ER Doctors Wish You Knew

Updated: May 07, 2020

Emergency room doctors reveal the first aid basics you should know that could save a life before you call 911 and go to the ER.

First Aid KitA red first aid kit bag with a black zip and handle, in closeup.
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First aid 101

When it comes to emergencies you either do one of two things: Panic and stay paralyzed or stay calm and take action by providing first aid. Your reaction to an emergency is likely related to how prepared you are both physically and mentally. For example, do you know what to do if someone goes into anaphylactic shock? Or, how about if someone goes into cardiac arrest? You may want to brush up (or learn) the CPR steps everyone should know.

Your first instinct is to call 911 and rush to the emergency room (ER) to seek immediate treatment. Although this is not wrong, there are things you can do prior to going to the ER that could save a life. The key thing is to identify the problem and provide help in an emergency.

To learn more about providing first aid, we spoke with ER doctors who share the first aid basics you should know that could save a life. And you’ll also want to stock up on the crucial items you need in a home emergency kit.

Treating the severe allergic reaction with the epinephrine
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How to use an EpiPen

An injection of epinephrine can reverse anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction often caused by a food or an insect sting. The problem? Many folks who need a prescription device, aren’t using it, according to a 2018 study published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. “Unfortunately, many people have the device and still remain hesitant to use it,” says Shari Platt, MD, chief of pediatric emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, in New York City. That’s a big problem because anaphylaxis can progress quickly and even be fatal.

So make sure you fill the prescription and carry the two-pack everywhere. Ask your doctor’s office to walk you through exactly how to use this prescription device; it varies slightly depending on whether you’ve been prescribed an EpiPen, generic device, or an Auvi-Q (this one includes a neat feature—a recorded voice that walks you through the proper steps).

One basic thing to remember: You need to inject the epinephrine into the outer thigh—not the inner thigh, the butt, or anywhere else. And right after you use it, call 911 or get quickly to the emergency room.

Automated External Defibrillator and rescue bag, horizontal

How to use an AED

When someone goes into cardiac arrest, blood stops pumping to the organs and they can quickly die. That’s why more and more public spaces (restaurants, schools) are now stocked with an Automated External Defibrillator (AED), a device that can restart the heart in the event that a child over eight or adult is in sudden cardiac arrest. An AED device works by shocking the heart back into a normal rhythm. Picture those paddles that you see on TV medical dramas where they yell, “Stand clear!”

The benefits are indeed as dramatic as they look on TV. “Knowing how to properly use it could potentially help save another human being’s life,” says Dr. Platt. You should take an emergency first aid course to get properly trained, but here is a cheat sheet to the steps involved in AED from the American Red Cross. Here are the emergency first aid items you should keep in your house.

Ice cube in bucket on the wood table,with preset color.
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How to stop the bleeding from a minor cut

First grab a clean towel, or sterile gauze pads if that’s all you have, and put direct pressure on the wound. Now comes the insider trick: “Use ice to help the blood clot a little faster,” advises Mary Jane Piroutek, MD, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist at CHOC Children’s in Orange, California. Once it’s no longer bleeding, wash the wound out, particularly if there’s a chance there’s dirt or gravel in it. You may wonder: Do I really need to go to the emergency room with a cut? “If it’s through all the layers of the skin, it will heal much better and leave a smaller scar if you come into the Emergency Department and have it cleaned really well and sutured shut,” she says.

Gauze bandage the treating patients with man is wrapping his foot injury

…And how to stem bleeding if you’ve cut a vein or artery

Even if you do have the alarming blood flow from a cut artery, your first step should be to apply pressure. If that won’t stem the blood loss, you may need to do a tourniquet: “It can be the difference between life and death—especially if you are far from a medical facility,” says Jesse Sandhu, MD, physician owner at Steamboat Emergency Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

You don’t need special medical equipment—”tourniquets can be easily fashioned from rubber bands (for fingers) and straps or exercise bands for arms and legs,” he says. Always call 911 first, or direct someone else to. Try applying direct pressure using a towel, he says. If the patient is bleeding significantly despite you applying a large amount of direct pressure on the wound and they’re pale, sweaty, dizzy, or short of breath, “that’s a sign of significant blood loss and I wouldn’t hesitate to do a tourniquet,” Dr. Sandhu says. To fabricate your tourniquet, take a clean towel and wrap a band or belt tightly around the limb.

You can also use the tourniquet technique if you cut your finger with a kitchen knife. “Wrapping a rubber band around the finger, and holding it above the head will stop the bleeding almost immediately and allow you to put a tight dressing over it. Don’t strangulate the finger for more than five to ten minutes,” he says. “That’s just enough time to apply a pressure dressing (gauze and tape tightly). Once a dressing is in place, open the rubber band and restore blood flow to the finger.” Here’s how to save your own life in 12 scary emergencies.

Cute girl showing her missing milk teeth, isolated on white background Mumbai Maharashtra, India, South East Asia.

How to save a knocked-out tooth

Whether you wipe out while running or your child takes a baseball to the mouth, losing a tooth is scary. What now?! The key to saving that tooth is knowing what to do ahead of time, says Andrew Wittenberg, MD, chairman of the department of emergency medicine at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, in California.

Ideally, place it in a glass of milk, he says, but if you can’t do that quickly, then put the tooth back in your mouth and try not to swallow it on the way to the dentist or ER. “That’s your best bet for keeping the root viable so it can successfully reattach,” he says. “Yeah, it’s a little gross but well worth it.”

Pills boats orange with white tablets of different types
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How to avoid risky medication mistakes

When you’re facing a life-and-death scenario, there’s no time to Google the spellings of drugs you’re taking or try to remember what dose you are currently on. At the same time, the ER staff needs to know this crucial info, or else they could accidentally give you something that interacts with your usual meds. Here’s a stay-safe tip to do today: “Use your cell phone to take pictures of your pill bottles,” advises Carlton Buchanan, MD, president of the medical staff at Gwinnett Medical Center (GMC) and GMC-affiliated emergency physician, in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

Having this must-know info stored in your phone will help you stay safe. (Make sure your loved ones know your password and where to find it on the phone.) Dr. Buchanan also recommends snapping shots of your physicians’ business cards while you are at it. That way, your emergency medical team will be able to confer with your usual doctors if they have questions, which can mean better care for you. Find out the 10 ways patients mess up in the ER.

A bee sting of the western honey bee (Apis mellifera) in human skin
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How to get a stinger out

You may have been told to use your fingers or tweezers to remove a bee or wasp stinger, but that can send more of the venom straight into your wound. A better bet is to scrape out the stinger with a credit card, says Piroutek. Out in the woods without your wallet? No worries; use a clean fingernail to scrape, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). After you get the stinger out, wash the area with soap and water. An ice pack comes in handy to minimize swelling. Warning: If you develop swelling in other parts of your body, hives, or nausea, go straight to the emergency room because you may be having an allergic reaction, warns the AAD.

Female doctor removing a tick with tweezers from hand of patient. Encephalitis, borreliosis and lyme disease.

How to safely remove a tick

First what NOT to do: Do not light a match right next to the attached tick to get it out. That old wives’ tale can lead to accidental injuries, says Katherine Williamson, MD, a pediatrician at CHOC Children’s. Instead, she advises, “Dip a cotton ball in liquid soap and soak the tick for one to two minutes. Then locate the head of the tick and use tweezers to pull it straight out.” Don’t twist or squeeze or you could break it, leaving the head inside you. Next, wash the area with soap and water, according to the AAD. A tick bite doesn’t guarantee contracting Lyme disease or another tick illness, but do stay alert for early signs, which may include flu-like symptoms, stiff neck, and a rash that often but not always looks like a bullseye. Next, find out the secrets hospitals don’t want to tell you.