10 Basic First Aid Procedures

Getting someone through a medical crisis

Basic first aid procedures can help you get someone through a medical crisis, at least until the paramedics arrive or you can get them to a hospital. The best way to prepare for these events is to get official first aid training, such as that offered by the American Red Cross.

Until you're able to do that, though, you can learn some basic first aid procedures. That way, you can respond the right way when someone needs you to.

CPR Certification

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First aid is the care a sick or injured person gets before they get full medical treatment. In some cases, it may be the only care someone needs, while in others, it may keep them safe until paramedics arrive or someone else gets them to the hospital.

First aid can include everything from bandaging a minor wound to preventing shock to keeping someone's heart beating during a cardiac event. Ideally, it should be performed by someone who's taken a class and is certified in first aid, but if no one is available, anyone with some basic knowledge can pitch in.

When someone is unconscious or unresponsive, a basic tenet of first aid is ABC:

  • Airway: If someone's not breathing, clear their airway.
  • Breathing: If the airway is clear and they're still not breathing, provide rescue breathing.
  • Circulation: Chest compressions to keep blood circulating should be performed along with rescue breathing. If the person is breathing but unresponsive, check their pulse to see if their heart has stopped and, if so, provide chest compressions.

An alternate and simpler version of the ABCs is:

  • Awake? If not, try to wake them. If they don't wake up, make sure someone is calling 911 and move on to B.
  • Breathing? If not, start rescue breathing and chest compressions. If so, move on to C.
  • Continue care: Follow instructions from 911 or continue treatment until an ambulance arrives.

Some courses also include D and possibly E, as well:

  • D can stand for disability assessment, which is fairly complicated for someone without medical training. It also sometimes stands for deadly bleeding, which needs to be stopped, or defibrillator if someone's heart has stopped and an automated external defibrillator (AED) device is available.
  • E stands for examination—evaluating the person for signs of injury, bleeding, allergies, or other problems once you know they're breathing and their heart is beating.

What is an AED?

An AED, or automated external defibrillator, is a portable, easy-to-use device that can check someone's heart rhythm and, if necessary, deliver an electric shock to correct the rhythm.

1

CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation)

child performing cpr
Elva Etienne / Getty Images

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is the most important medical procedure of all. If a person is in cardiac arrest (the heart is no longer pumping blood) and CPR is not performed, that person will die. On the other hand, performing CPR or using an AED could save a life.

AEDs are available in many public areas and businesses. These devices are simplified for use even if you have never been trained. CPR training will include getting familiar with AED use, which can save valuable time if you need to use one.

First Aid for Suspected Cardiac Arrest

When you suspect someone is in cardiac arrest:

  1. Get someone to call 911 or the medical alert system for your location.
  2. Start chest compressions immediately. Push down hard and fast in the center of the chest, allowing the chest to come back up naturally between compressions. Continue until someone with more training has arrived.
  3. If you're trained in CPR, use chest compressions and rescue breathing.
  4. Use an AED if one is available. It's important to not delay chest compressions, though, so have someone else find one while you do chest compressions.

Taking a formal CPR class will help you become familiar with chest compressions, rescue breathing, and AED use, and that can make all the difference if you're around when someone has a heart attack. To take a class, contact your local chapter of the American Red Cross or look online for classes in your community. You can also take an online-only class if none are available in your area.

2

Bleeding

Man bandaging hand on staircase

Zero Creatives / Getty Images 

Bleeding is usually fairly obvious, especially if it's severe. While it is important to stop the bleeding, remember the ABCs and check first for something more serious.

Regardless of severity, almost all bleeding can be controlled, so don't think you can't help someone who's bleeding a lot. If severe bleeding is allowed to continue, it can lead to shock and, eventually, death.

It's easy to overestimate the amount of blood loss you're witnessing. To get an accurate assessment of what type of bleeding it is, look at its color and how it's leaving the body.

  • Capillaries: Bleeding from capillaries, which are the smallest blood vessels, looks like a trickle and will usually stop on its own.
  • Veins: A consistent blood flow and blood that's a dark red color is most likely coming from the veins. It can result in anywhere from mild to severe bleeding that can be rapid.
  • Arteries: Arteries are the largest blood vessels and are under pressure, so blood spurts from the wound. It's also bright red, as it carries more oxygen. Blood can be lost most rapidly from an arterial bleed and it's always considered an emergency.

Call 911 or get the person to a hospital any time you suspect arterial bleeding, blood is soaking through bandages, or the bleeding won't stop. Make sure someone can keep treating the person during the drive or while you wait for an ambulance.

Whenever possible, wash your hands when treating a wound to help prevent infection. Wear latex or nitrile gloves if they're available. This can protect you from infections in the injured person's blood, including viral hepatitis or HIV/AIDS.

First Aid for Bleeding

If you're faced with bleeding:

  1. Rinse the wound with water if possible.
  2. Cover the wound with a gauze or cloth (towel, blanket, clothing, whatever's available).
  3. Apply direct pressure to stop the blood flow and encourage clotting.
  4. If possible, elevate the bleeding body part above the heart.
  5. Don't remove the cloth if it becomes soaked through, but add more layers if needed. Removing the first layer will interfere with the clotting process and result in more blood loss.
  6. Once bleeding is stopped, apply a clean bandage.

Get medical help when the wound:

  • Is deep
  • Has widely separated sides
  • Oozes blood after pressure has been applied
  • Is from a bite (human or animal)
  • Is a puncture, burn, or electrical injury

Should You Use a Tourniquet?

Using a tourniquet is somewhat controversial except in dire emergencies in which a person's life could be at stake. Some argue that tourniquets can do more harm than good, possibly leading to a limb amputation due to tissue damage.

A 2018 review of published research found that some arterial injury and limb damage were reported, but infrequently. However, the studies they examined had a lot of shortcomings and inconsistencies. The researchers called for standardized data collection of limb trauma and tourniquet use to help determine their safety and effectiveness.

The value of using elevation or pressure points (pressing on an artery to slow blood flow) is debated, with some experts and organizations saying to use them and others leaving these steps out of their first aid instruction.

3

Choking

Man performing the Heimlich manoeuvre on a choking woman.

Science Photo Library / Getty Images 

Choking due to a windpipe obstruction is a serious situation that can make someone lose consciousness and even die if the obstruction isn't removed. Procedures are different for babies who are less than a year old.

Before you start first aid on someone for choking, make sure they really need it. If they're coughing or talking, leave them alone. That's not really choking. Signs of choking include:

  • Gagging, gasping, or wheezing
  • Inability to talk or make noise
  • Turning blue in the face
  • Grabbing at the throat
  • Waving arms
  • Appearing panicked

If the person is conscious and old enough to respond properly, ask if they're choking before you start first aid. In anyone but an infant, that means performing the Heimlich maneuver.

First Aid for Choking

To perform the Heimlich maneuver:

  1. Stand behind the person and lean them slightly forward
  2. Put your arms around their waist
  3. Clench a fist and place it between their navel and rib cage
  4. Grab your fist with your other hand
  5. Pull the clenched fist sharply backward and upward under their rib cage in 5 quick thrusts. Repeat until the object is coughed up.

For someone who's obese or pregnant, perform thrusts around the chest instead of the abdomen.

If someone is unconscious:

  1. Place them on their back and kneel over them
  2. Place the heel of your hand slightly above the navel
  3. Place your other hand on top of it
  4. Give quick upward thrusts to dislodge the obstruction
4

Burns

Woman with hands under running water
RUNSTUDIO / Getty Images

The first step to treating a burn is to stop the burning process. Chemicals need to be cleaned off. Electricity needs to be turned off. Heat needs to be cooled down with running water. Sunburn victims need to be covered up or go inside.

No matter what caused the burns or how bad they are, stopping the burn comes before treating the burn. The severity of a burn is based on its depth and size:

  • First-degree burn: This affects only the outer layer of skin and causes redness and swelling. It is always considered a minor burn.
  • Second-degree burn: This affects two layers of skin and causes blistering along with redness and swelling. It is considered a major burn if it's more than 3 inches wide or on the face, hands, feet, genitals, buttocks, or over a major joint.
  • Third-degree burns: This affects deeper layers of skin and causes white or blackened skin that may be numb. It is always considered a major burn.

Major burns need emergency medical attention, so call 911 or get someone else to call once the burning process has been stopped.

First Aid for Burns

 Take these first aid steps:

  1. Flush the burned area with cool running water for several minutes. Do not use ice.
  2. Apply a light gauze bandage.
  3. Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain relief if necessary.
  4. Do not break any blisters that may have formed.

Do not apply ointments, butter, or oily remedies to a burn.

5

Blisters

Cropped Hand Of Man Applying Adhesive Bandage On Ankle
Rattanakorn Songrenoo / EyeEm / Getty Images

Whether a blister needs any treatment is debatable. If the blister is small, unbroken, and not very painful, it's probably best to leave it alone. Cover it to prevent continued rubbing and pressure that could cause it to swell more and possibly burst on its own.

Blisters are designed to protect the damaged skin underneath while it heals. Popping them not only disrupts this natural healing process, but it can also let in bacteria that cause an infection.

If you have a compromised immune system—such as from HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, or immunosuppressant drugs—you have a heightened risk of infection and shouldn't drain a blister on your own. Your doctor may want to drain it to protect you from infection.

First Aid for Blisters

If the blister is large or painful—especially if the activity that caused it isn’t finished (such as if you are in the middle of a hike)—follow these steps to drain and dress a blister:

  1. Wash your hands and sterilize a needle with alcohol.
  2. Make small punctures at the edge of the blister.
  3. Gently push the fluid out.
  4. Apply antibiotic ointment.
  5. Bandage it.
  6. If possible, take steps to protect the area from further rubbing or pressure.

If the blister broke open on its own:

  1. Gently wash with clean water only.
  2. Smooth the flap of broken skin over the newly exposed skin, unless it's dirty, torn, or pus has gathered under it.
  3. Apply petroleum jelly.
  4. Bandage it.

Change the bandage any time it gets wet. Take it off when you go to bed so the area can dry.

6

Broken Bone or Fracture

Woman sitting with ice pack on knee

Odilon Dimier / PhotoAlto / Getty Images

Any injury to your limbs, hands, and feet needs to be treated as a broken bone (fracture) until an X-ray can confirm whether it's broken. While fractures do need medical treatment so they can heal properly, they don't all require an ambulance or an emergency trip to the hospital.

However, you should call 911 immediately if:

  • The person is bleeding profusely, unconscious or unresponsive, not breathing, or has numerous injuries (try to stop the bleeding or start CPR if necessary)
  • You suspect a fracture or other serious injury to the spinal column, head, hip, pelvis, or thigh—the person should not be moved except by trained medical personnel
  • A broken bone protrudes from the skin (called an open or compound fracture)
  • The area below an injured joint feels cold and clammy or becomes bluish
  • You can't immobilize the injury well enough to transport the person

Otherwise, after using first aid, you can go to urgent care or contact your doctor's office and ask for guidance. They'll likely want to see the injured person right away so any broken bone(s) can be properly set and treated.

First Aid for Suspected Fracture

Take these steps for a suspected fracture:

  1. Don't try to straighten it.
  2. For a limb, use a splint and padding to immobilize it.
  3. Put a cold pack on the injury, with a barrier between it and the skin to prevent tissue damage. If ice is all that's available, put it in a plastic bag and wrap it in a shirt or towel.
  4. If it's an extremity, elevate it.
  5. Give anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil (ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxen) for pain.

Research has shown that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil and Aleve can slow bone healing, which is a process that depends on inflammation. However, short-term NSAID use appears to have little or no effect and doesn't appear to have a significant effect on bone healing in children. So it should be safe to use these medications to help the person get through the intense, acute pain that follows a fracture.

7

Sprains

soccer player icing sprained ankle

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A sprain is an injury to ligaments, which are connective tissues that holds bones, cartilage, and joints together. Sprains are generally caused by a violent wrenching or twisting of a joint, which over-stretches or tears the ligament. Common places for a sprain are the ankle and wrist.

The symptoms of a sprain are almost exactly the same as those of a broken bone (barring a compound fracture or visible deformities). Because even a doctor may not be sure whether it's a break or sprain until after an X-ray, first aid for sprains should be largely the same as for broken bones.

The first thing to do is make sure the injured person stops any unnecessary activity so they don't make the injury worse. Then you can begin first aid.

First Aid for Sprains

For a suspected sprain:

  1. Immobilize the limb
  2. Apply a cold pack
  3. Elevate the injured part if you can do so safely
  4. Use NSAIDs for pain

See your doctor soon for further diagnosis and treatment.

As with fractures, sprains often don't require emergency treatment. However, you should get immediate medical care if the injured person has:

  • Severe pain with movement or touch
  • Ongoing inability to bear weight on the injured joint
  • Increased bruising
  • Numbness or pins-and-needles near the sprain
  • Signs of infection
  • Little or no improvement during the first week
8

Nosebleeds

Mother helping daughter with nosebleed

KidStock / Getty Images

Most of us have had a bloody nose at some time in our lives. It simply means bleeding from the inside of the nose due to trauma. The biggest cause of a nosebleed is digital trauma—otherwise known as picking it. It can also be caused by environmental factors, medical conditions (some minor, some serious), medications, and recreational drugs. Causes include:

Many of these things dry out or damage the delicate nasal membranes in your nostrils, causing them to become crusty and burst when irritated.

First Aid for Nosebleed

The first aid for nosebleed includes:

  1. Lean slightly forward, not back.
  2. Pinch the nose just below the bridge, high enough that the nostrils aren't pinched closed.
  3. Check after five minutes to see if bleeding has stopped. If not, continue pinching and check after another 10 minutes.
  4. You can also apply a cold pack to the bridge of the nose while pinching.

See a doctor if:

  • You get frequent nosebleeds
  • You have anemia symptoms (weakness, faintness, fatigue, pale skin)
  • You're taking blood thinners
  • You have a clotting disorder
  • You just started a new medication
  • You also have unusual bruising

A nosebleed needs emergency medical treatment when:

  • It won't stop even after more than 15 minutes of direct pressure
  • You're losing a lot of blood
  • You have a hard time breathing
  • You've swallowed a lot of blood and vomited it up
  • You've had a serious injury or a blow to the head
9

Frostbite

woman's hands warming man's hands

Dean Mitchell / E+ / Getty Images

Frostbite occurs when the body's tissues freeze deeply in the cold—ice crystals form in the tissues and damage your cells. This is the opposite of a burn, but the damage it does to your skin is almost identical.

First Aid for Frostbite

Treating frostbite is a delicate procedure of gradual warming. If at all possible, this should be done by professionals at a medical facility. If that's not possible, or while awaiting an ambulance, you can begin first aid:

  1. Get out of the cold.
  2. Immerse the affected area in warm water (98 to 105 F) for 20 to 30 minutes.
  3. Do not rub the affected area.
  4. Do not use sources of dry heat (like a heating pad or fire air).
  5. For fingers and toes: After they're warm, put clean cotton balls between them.
  6. Loosely wrap the area with bandages.
  7. Use Tylenol or Advil for pain.
  8. Get medical attention as soon as possible.

For small areas of minor frostbite, you can also warm the area with skin-to-skin contact.

Get emergency treatment if the skin is hard and begins turning white.

10

Bee Stings

Allergic reaction to bee sting

HAYKIRDI / Getty Images

Bee stings are annoyingly painful for most people, but they can be deadly for those who are allergic to bee venom.

First Aid for Bee-Venom Allergy

If the person who was stung has a known allergy to bee stings, use an EpiPen to prevent anaphylaxis. If one isn't available, call 911.

An allergy to bees can develop at any time, even in someone who's been stung many times before, so it's important to always watch for signs of an allergic reaction after a sting. Just about any bee sting will cause pain, redness, and swelling. In an allergic reaction, look for:

  • Swelling away from the area that was stung
  • Flushing
  • Hives
  • Itching
  • Signs of anaphylaxis, which include impaired breathing and shock (anxiety, bluish lips and fingernails, chest pain, confusion, dizziness, profuse sweating, and skin that's pale, cool, and clammy)

Call 911 immediately or get the person to the hospital if any of these signs appear.

In someone without a known bee allergy, watch for signs of an allergy while performing first aid.

First Aid for Bee Stings

Follow these steps for bee sting first aid:

  1. Get the stinger out any way you can to keep it from injecting more venom. The method doesn't matter—it's most important to do it quickly.
  2. Wash the area with soap and water.
  3. Use a cold pack to reduce swelling at the site, but don't apply ice directly to the skin. 
  4. Use an antihistamine like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) to reduce swelling and itching. 
  5. Use Advil or Tylenol for pain.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the ABCs of first aid? 

ABC in first aid traditionally stands for airway, breathing, and circulation. When someone is unconscious or unresponsive, you should check and clear their airway and provide rescue breathing and chest compressions. ABC can also stand for awake, breathing, and continue care.

What are common first-aid procedures? 

First-aid procedures covered in a basic course include CPR, the Heimlich maneuver, and how to assess and treat minor injuries including wounds, burns, sprains, and broken bones.

What are the three Ps of first aid? 

The three Ps of first aid are: 

  • Preserve life
  • Prevent deterioration
  • Promote recovery
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Article Sources
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