When it comes to first aid, it’s easy to think you’re an expert. If you’re like most people, you’ve watched movies and TV shows that seem to be secretly providing you emergency training in Basic First Aid. Or you have a well-meaning relative who swears by this or that that they learned from their grandparents and they from theirs.
But the truth is that there are a lot of misconceptions about what to do when someone suffers an injury. What may have once been considered best safety practice may now be obsolete because it’s been disproved or because modern science has given us a much better way to handle that situation.
Here are some such Basic First Aid myths that seem to persist and you should stop believing.
1. Myth: Bring Out the Butter for a Burn
For many, this sounds like basic first aid. As the myth goes, if someone burns themselves on a hot stove, iron, explosion, etc., you should slather it with butter.
The myth has been around for centuries. But according to BBC.org, it gathered worldwide popularity in the 19th Century when a respected surgeon published a book of battlefield treatments that included this tip. While there is some logic behind it, the reasoning doesn’t align with modern technology.
They believed the grease would protect the burned appendage from the outside like a skin-tight bandage. Their goal was to reduce the risk they’d have to amputate it, not to prevent scarring, stop the pain, promote healing, or other benefits we’d look for today.
You’ll remember this was before antibiotics. Around the time this was published, we were just beginning to understand that bacteria infect wounds and cause sepsis.
But what about butter in a pinch? Does this myth have any merit today? No, you should never put anything greasy on a burn. It may create a temporary barrier, but it also traps heat in the skin to make the burn worse, not better
First Aid for Burns
- Wash your hands and attend to area safety
- Get out the first aid kit
- Rinse the burn with clean, cold, or cool water, which will not only cleanse but also reduce pain for 15 to 30 minutes
- Apply an antibiotic ointment
- Wrap the burn loosely in clean bandages
- Have the person follow up with a medical professional
To learn more about injury and burn training, you might like First Aid for Traumatic Injuries.
2. Myth: You Must Do Mouth-to-Mouth for CPR
When you learn CPR, you do learn how to give breaths and compressions together. Bystander CPR saves lives that would otherwise be lost by the time emergency responders arrive. And according to research published on NIH.gov, you’re most likely to perform CPR on someone you know, usually family.
But you may be wondering, what if I don’t know this person and don’t have any protective gear? Do you have to give breaths for CPR to work? Technically, no, you don’t. And CPR can still work.
Hands-Only CPR involves compression plus an automated external defibrillator (AED), available in most public places.
In fact, according to International Liaison Committee on Resuscitation (ILCOR) guidelines, you should prioritize chest compressions over breaths if you can’t do both as a single rescuer. And chest compressions alone are just as effective as CPR with both. In fact, during the pandemic, ILCOR provided temporary recommendations of Hands-Only plus defibrillation for lay CPR administrators who don’t have protective gear.
There is an exception, though. For infants and children, the recommendation continues to be to give breaths as part of CPR.
You can learn more about Adult CPR, AED, and Choking here.
3. Myth: Tilt the Head Back for a Nose Bleed
Again, those who developed this were thinking logically based upon the science of the time. They likely saw that the blood flow slowed when someone tilted their head back. But the issue is what you don’t see.
That blood is still pouring out of the wound at the same rate. But instead of coming out the nose, it goes into the digestive tract and the airways, causing choking and nausea.
Tilting the head back actually makes choking more likely because it opens the airway.
How to Manage a Nosebleeds
Instead, lean forward and gently pinch the nostrils. Then apply cold to the bridge of the nose to slow the bleeding long enough for the body’s immune system to do its work to stop it. Hold the nostrils for five to 10 minutes, then check to see if it has stopped.
4. Myth: Always Use Heimlich on a Choking Person
The Heimlich Maneuver forces air out of the airway. If there is something completely blocking the airway, the pressure builds up behind it. And pop! But if a person has a partial obstruction, that air will just go around, and doing Heimlich may just cause the object to lodge deeper as the person inhales after each attempt.
How do you know the difference? A person whose airway is wholly blocked can’t speak and will start turning blue. That means they need Heimlich now.
But if they can talk a little, encourage them to cough hard. If the choker is a child, you may be able to see the obstruction and dip it out with your fingers. Call 911 if the blockage doesn’t dislodge completely.
5. Myth: Apply Heat to a Sprained Ankle Injury
Sometimes physical therapists do recommend alternating hot and cold for certain types of injuries. Heat increases blood flow, which can promote healing. Cold reduces swelling.
So the idea of applying heat to a sprained ankle may have arisen from this thinking. But in the case of a sprained ankle, the swelling is the problem you’re trying to address
Basic First Aid for a Sprained Ankle
Apply a cold compress for 10 minutes, then, as needed. Seek medical attention if you suspect a fracture or dislocation.
6. Myth: Put a Slab of Raw Meat on a Black Eye
This has been a cultural meme from movies and TV for some time. But why do people do it, and does it work? This is likely more of a TV trope than something most people have ever tried.
The idea behind this is likely that meat stays cold for a very long time after coming out of the fridge or freezer. Some believe that the cold pulls moisture out of the swelling eye, thus reducing how big it gets. The cold would constrict blood vessels and could reduce swelling.
When this was popularized, it may have just been the only thing people had that was cold and stayed cold in most households. But this basic first aid for an eye injury is not only a waste of meat that someone could eat. It’s dangerous.
Once the meat begins to thaw, even a little, it becomes a bacteria factory. Re-freezing it or putting it in the fridge will slow down bacteria but doesn’t eliminate it. That could lead to a real health emergency.
If you do get a black eye for some reason, just put a cold compress on it to reduce the swelling.
7. Myth: You Should Suck Venom Out of a Snake Bite
As with the meat for a black eye example, many basic first aid and survival myths arise from clever authors and screenwriters just trying to find some unique way for the protagonist to overcome the odds and save the day.
There are several reasons this is oh, so bad advice. First of all, think about it from the venomous snake’s perspective. What use would it be for them to inject venom if it didn’t immediately do its work?
As soon as the snake bites, that venom is already in the bloodstream. Sucking on a bite site would only improve the blood flow in that area, thus increasing the rate venom moves out into the blood. Instead, you need to call for emergency help immediately if you think a venomous snake bit you.
That’s an option with current technology that people on Wild West TV shows didn’t have.
8. Myth: Put Something in the Mouth of a Seizure Victim
Please don’t do this. People with epilepsy have many seizures, and their body knows how to handle them. They don’t need a foreign object entering the equation.
Even if this is their first seizure, people with seizures don’t swallow their tongues. The tongue is one of the strongest muscles in the body, not a floppy appendage. It also tenses and gets out of the way during a seizure, so they’re not going to bite it off.
But putting something in a seizure victim’s mouth could cause them to suck it down their windpipe or swallow it.
Basic First Aid for a Seizure Emergency
If a doctor is treating this person for epilepsy, follow the doctor’s instructions if you know them. But people can have seizures from blood sugar, heart issues, trauma, and other causes. In these cases, you should:
- Help the person safely get onto the ground.
- Move any objects away that they could grab and hurt themselves with
- Support their head with a small pillow
- Call 911
After the seizure, they may be unresponsive, so:
- Check for pulse and start CPR if needed
- Put them on their side to reduce the risk of choking (on saliva, not their tongue)
- Wait with them for help
You can learn more about managing seizures in Basic First Aid training.
9. Myth: Force Someone to Vomit Up Poison
We know that doctors often pump someone’s stomach after poisoning, so can’t someone just do it the old-fashioned, natural way by vomiting? Historically, parents gave children Ipecac Syrup, which is no longer available for this purpose. And this may have saved some lives. But with what we know now, it’s certainly not the safest or most effective way to get poison out.
That’s because many poisons are worse for the body coming up than going down. Once they mix with stomach acid, they have the ability to cause significant internal burning and bleeding on the way back up. Some of the poison would be neutralized if it were allowed to go down into the intestines. Once a toxin gets into the intestines, the immune system saturates the gut with water to flush those toxins through as fast as possible, which causes intestinal pain and diarrhea.
But that doesn’t mean you should do nothing. Enough poison can still lead to seizures, cardiac arrest, trouble breathing, and death. Call 911 if the person is having seizures, unconsciousness, trouble breathing, or having other signs of life-threatening poisoning. Tell them what the person consumed. And they can guide you through the best course of action.
10. Myth: You Could Get Sued If You Perform CPR
Whether you’re worried about not having consent or hurting the person, you’re protected legally. For public safety, states have laws that take care of people who are taking reasonable actions to try to save someone’s life.
Any lawsuit would be considered frivolous and be immediately dismissed. And if you’re worried about the court of public opinion (e.i., social media), that would be on your side too. Any logical person understands that if someone needs CPR, they cannot give consent.
But What If They Die?
Along these same lines, let’s say you did start CPR, and the victim didn’t survive. Know that you didn’t kill the person–morally, ethically, or legally. If someone goes into cardiac arrest, the person is already dying.
If no one starts CPR, their chances of surviving until EMS arrives are almost non-existent. Unless you know they have a signed do not resuscitate (DNR) order, the best thing you can do is start CPR. And before the emergency arises, you should get proper CPR and First Aid training so that you know what to do in this emergency.
11. Myth: Giving Chest Compressions to Someone Who Doesn’t Need Them Is Harmful
In CPR training, you learn to determine whether or not you need to start CPR. But starting CPR on someone who doesn’t need it, won’t usually cause any more harm. Either they’re going to wake up and tell you to stop. Or the person is past the point where CPR could help.
In a very frail person or child, you might break a rib. But it’s generally better to err on the side of caution.
12. Myth: Only Medical Emergencies Represent a True Emergency
A mental health emergency can cause as much injury and damage as a physical one, especially when substance abuse is involved. Mental health first aid is also important. It involves:
- Being aware enough to know someone is struggling with mental illness and/or substance abuse
- Assessing if they are a suicide risk
- Listening without judgement
- Providing them with reassurance and information (if they’re open to it)
- Encouraging them to reach out to a professional
- Making sure they know about self-help options
A little knowledge can go a long way when you learn CPR and Basic First Aid, but it’s critical that you take the time to learn it before the emergency happens. Otherwise, you might fall back on some of these basic first aid myths.
What basic first aid myths have you heard? Share with us on social media.