9 Ways to Use Your T-shirt as a Medical Supply

Updated: Feb. 09, 2017

If you can’t get professional medical help, you can still stop a bad bleed, help prevent wound infection, and help treat a friend’s heat exhaustion or sprained arm—all with a simple T-shirt.

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For a pressure dressing

When someone is bleeding, applying pressure will usually stop it. A very clean, wadded up T-shirt comes in handy for this. First, you can place it between your hand and the wound to help protect yourself and the bleeder from each other’s germs. (Use nonporous gloves too if you have them.) For jagged wounds, the T-shirt will also allow for deeper pressure. For large wounds, it will allow for pressure across a bigger surface area. Here’s the best trick: If the bleeding stops with the pressure but starts back when you release it, you can make a pressure dressing so you don’t have to keep holding the T-shirt on the wound yourself. Just tape the shirt down firmly onto the wound. The tape acts as your hand, continually pressing the shirt’s bulk onto the injured area. This should keep the bleeding stopped. Check more of my genius first aid tricks for when help is NOT on the way here.

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For a tourniquet

If a leg, arm, hand, or foot doesn’t stop badly bleeding even with pressure, it’s time for a tourniquet. No makeshift solution works as well as a commercial tourniquet. However, if stopping the bleeding is a matter of life or death, and all you have is a T-shirt, it’s worth a try. Tear a strip that’s four to six inches wide and two to three feet long. Fold it until it’s about two inches wide. Wrap it above the wound, and tighten until the bleeding stops. A sturdy stick can help with this: Tie the ends of the T-shirt to the ends of the stick, and twist the stick like a steering wheel to tighten. Get expert help as soon as possible because you can’t keep a tourniquet on too long without causing severe tissue damage.

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For a wound dressing

To help prevent infection, you need to dress most wounds. To use a T-shirt for this, find the cleanest one you can. (If it’s not clean, you could consider boiling it in water for a few minutes and then letting it cool.) Tear the T-shirt into strips wide enough to cover the wound, and fold them into a length long enough to cover the wound. Or just wad the shirt up into a dressing. Clean the wound, especially if you won’t be able to get help for more than a couple of hours or so. Apply antibacterial ointment if you have it. Then tape your dressing over the wound. You could alternately tie it down with a longer strip of T-shirt, but keep in mind that on an extremity—a leg, arm, hand, or foot—anything you tie on could become a tourniquet. So make sure you can at least get two fingers under the wrapped material, and watch for any signs of decreased circulation, such as cold, blue, or numb toes or fingers.

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For a body cooler

When the temperature soars, you can use a T-shirt to help prevent heat exhaustion. Wet the shirt and either put it back on or wrap it around your neck. As the water evaporates, it’ll cool your body down a bit. (Also drink fluids and take breaks in the shade, especially if you’re not acclimated to the heat.) Possible signs of heat exhaustion include extreme fatigue, confusion, and severe headache. If you get to that point, you need to stop working right then, drink liquids, and try to cool off. A wet T-shirt could come in handy for this too. Check out these tips to beat the heat and stay cool in summer.

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For a sling

Here’s an easy way to make a sling from a T-shirt: While wearing the shirt, pull the bottom of it up and over your forearm to form a hammock. Pin the shirt to itself to keep it in place. (If you’re having a lot of swelling, the hand should be around heart level. However, if this is particularly uncomfortable, you can lower it to your comfort level.) To make a fancier sling, tear some long, thick strips from a T-shirt. Tie the ends together, forming a circle. Loop it around your neck. Place your arm in the sling. To make the sling more comfortable, spread out the cloth under the arm as much as you want.

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For a compression wrap

You’ve probably heard of the old sprains standby RICES—rest, ice, compression, elevation, splint. A T-shirt can work for the compression part. Wrap it as you would an elastic bandage. Remember the circulation warnings I mentioned in the section about wound dressings. Also watch for increased swelling, which can make the wrap tighter than it was at first.

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For a splint

A T-shirt can help make an effective temporary splint for a broken bone. If you have a lot of material, first wrap strips of it around the injury. If you don’t, skip that part. Find a strong stick, and place it against the injury to keep the fractured area stable. For most breaks of a leg or arm, the stick should extend above and below the joints at each end of the injured bone. Using strips of the T-shirt, wrap the stick firmly in place. Watch the circulation and swelling, as mentioned above.

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For a sprain stabilizer

To decrease the movement of any sprained joint, wrap the joint with a T-shirt. The best way to do this is to tear the shirt into strips and wrap as you would an elastic bandage. Remember the circulation warnings from above. Sprains can swell quite a bit. Here are first aid rules for treating a sprained ankle.

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For an eye patch

To make an eye patch, simply fold a piece of a clean T-shirt, making it thick enough to keep your eye shut when you tape it over the eye. Tape it in place. Or, if you don’t have tape, tear off a separate, long strip of the shirt to tie around your head and keep the padding in place.

Get more first aid tips and tricks

Find more makeshift medical supplies in Dr. Hubbard’s newest book, The Survival Doctor’s Complete Handbook. And visit TheSurvivalDoctor.com for even more evidence-based tips for dealing with medical problems when getting expert care is impossible.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest