10 First Aid Myths and Mistakes

A lot of home remedies and tips are passed on from person to person. These tips often turn out to be myths that have propagated because of the media or mistakes that people once thought worked. We don't have grandiose visions of educating the world, but hopefully a few of you will remember this list and not make the same errors like so many others have before you.

1. CPR Always Saves Lives
2. Cut a Hole in Someone's Throat to Help them Breathe
3. Treat a Burn with Butter
4. Suck on a Snake Bite to Extract the Venom
5. Stop Bleeding with a Tourniquet
6. Pop a Blister
7. Keep Someone From Biting Their Tongue When Having a Seizure
8. Rub Frostbite
9. Use Heat for Bone and Joint Injuries
10. Drink Milk or Water When Poisoned

1. CPR Always Saves Lives

Have you ever heard of someone saying that CPR saves lives? While this may be the intention of CPR it is far from the truth. Yes, it is effective in maintaining circulation, but this does not sustain life for more than a few minutes, and does not restart the heart.

Woman Doing CPR

In fact, at the best of times, CPR alone is only effective at resuscitating about 3%-5% of cardiac arrest victims. This doesn't mean it's useless and that we shouldn't use it, but it is important to understand that most people will not be revived.

Other things that will influence the victim's chance of revival include how long they've been unconscious, how long it takes for paramedics to arrive, the use of a defibrillator, and what exactly has occurred to them physiologically.

2. Cut a Hole in Someone's Throat to Help them Breathe

You may have seen this on TV. Where someone can not breathe, because of an allergic reaction or due to choking on something. Then someone comes along and cuts a hole on the person's throat just below the voice box and miraculously saves their life.

What they don't tell you is that cutting just slightly too far to the left or right will cut into the major arteries of the neck which will cause severe bleeding and death. Even if you do it incorrectly blood from the cut will drain into the person's airway and can prevent breathing.

This method is not taught by any of the major first aid teaching organizations, and should only be used by highly trained personnel.

3. Treating a Burn with Butter

Stick of Butter

You should never ever put anything on a burn that has not been recommended by a pharmacist or a physician. A common myth is to put butter, or some other household product, on a burn. We don't know where this myth came from, but we do know it can do a lot of damage and result in even more pain.

Initially the cold butter will feel good because it is cold. But, very quickly the butter will warm up. And because it is oil based it will keep the heat trapped in the tissue. This will cause the tissue to burn longer as the heat is not able to escape.

What's worse is that if the burn is serious enough to require medical attention, the physician will have to remove the butter to prevent infection. And as you may already know, removing oil is not very easy. It may require chemicals (storn soap), or even scrubbing. This will be very painful at the best of times, let alone on a fresh burn.

Burns to the skin can be very serious. Any burn where the skin is damaged should be seen by a physician.

4. Suck on a Snake Bite to Extract the Venom

If you've ever watched old cowboy movies you've probably seen one of the heroes get bitten by a snake. Then his partner will come along with a sharp knife, slice a couple of inches of skin where the bite mark is, and then suck the venom out with his mouth. Not a good idea.

What you probably don't know is that once venom enters your body from a snake bite it travels very quickly through the blood stream. Literally, within a couple of seconds it's long gone from the area of the bite. And even if do you somehow do manage to suck blood filled with snake venom into your mouth, it will quickly be absorbed into your blood stream through the very thin skin in your mouth.

5. Stop Bleeding with a Tourniquet

A tourniquet is a method of controlling severe bleeding, by tying something above the cut and totally restricting blood flow to the limb. While this will work in controlling bleeding, it is no longer taught by any of the major first aid agencies, because it can easily lead to gangrene (death of tissue) of the limb. This occurs because tissue dies very quickly without blood flow.

Tourniquets should only be used in very extreme cases. Even so, every few minutes the tourniquet should be loosened to allow some blood to flow through.

6. Pop a Blister

It is very tempting to break blisters. However, doing so will expose very sensitive skin which can be more painful and can lead to infection.

If by chance the blister does break, do not tear the skin off. Many times the skin will heal. It may regrow permanently or fall off in a few days when the underlying skin has toughened up a bit.

7. Keep Someone From Biting Their Tongue When Having a Seizure

If someone is having a convulsion or seizure do not put anything in their mouths This myth is very common because we've all been taught to be concerned with the person biting their tongue. However, if this were going to happen, chances are the victim will have done it before you get to them. Also, by putting objects into someone's mouth results in a high risk that the object will break and result in choking. Even worse, the object could break teeth which in turn could cause choking. Both of which are much more serious than a bitten tongue.

And definitely never ever put your fingers into someone's mouth. Chances are they will bite them, maybe totally amputating them or at the very least causing you a lot of pain.

8. Rub Frostbite

Suffering from frostbite (frozen skin/tissue) can be very painful and, in extreme cases, lead to amputations if the tissue dies.

It is very common to try and rub frozen body parts to warm them up. If you do this with very mild frostbite there will be little damage. However, if tissue is actually frozen, rubbing will damage the skin.

When water in the tissue freezes, because of frostbite, it expands and forms tiny crystals in the skin cells. Rubbing the skin together will cause these tiny water crystals to literally make small cuts in the skin from the inside.

The best thing to do is to warm up those body parts by going inside where it's warm or placing them on another body part that is warm (e.g. underarms). In severe cases you should seek medical help as soon as you can.

9. Use Heat for Bone and Joint Injuries

Suffering a bone or joint injury is very painful. And there is a myth out there that you should put heat on these types of injuries. However, the best solution is a cold pack for about 20 minutes every hour.

Heat will cause more blood, and other injury related chemicals, to rush to the area. This will increase the swelling, which will make recovery take much longer, and can also lead to more scar tissue later on.

Heat should only ever be applied by a trained therapist, for the purpose of therapy, no sooner than 3 days after the injury. And of course the injury needs to be assessed for proper treatment.

Similarly, do not try and walk-off, or shake-off, such injuries. You can't heal broken bones or torn ligaments by bouncing around on a soccer field.

10. Drink Milk or Water When Poisoned

It is almost a gut reaction to give a poison victim something to drink, e.g. water or milk. What most people don't realize is that many common poisons will react more when mixed with water, milk, or other liquids.

Poison Symbol

Another common misconception is to induce vomiting. However, if the poison was corrosive, not only did it burn the esophagus on the way down, it will now burn on the way up. And, the poison may now also be inhaled by the lungs which can be damaged very easily.

Although it sounds a bit strange, corrosive substances will do less harm in the stomach, as it is lined with a protective layer. The best thing to do is call the poison center or refer to the container itself for the proper first aid treatment. If the victim is unconscious, in severe pain, or having trouble breathing, call paramedics right away.

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32 Comments

  1. Tourniquet- They stopped teaching it a while back, yes, but just in the past few years have brought it back. I've been an emt for 10 years now. Every 2 years I have to renew certification, When I last certified is when they informed us that it has been reinstated into our training. Medical information changes very often. like CPR it used to be 15 compressions to 2 breaths for everyone. Then it went to 30-2 for adults, 15-2 for children. It just depends on the studies and researches done on what science says is more efficient on helping prevent death. This top 10 list needs to be updated, just like medical training every few years.

  2. I love this article. There are so many people are injured more because of myths. I am CPR certified and during training we were told that our action to perform CPR was the difference between a chance at life that person. We were never told the statics of saving a life with CPR. I guess not knowing allows people to act instantly without hesitation. Luckily I have never had to perform CPR in a real life situation.

    • The point of CPR isn't to restart someone's heart or bring them back to life; it's just supposed to prolong the time that the brain has oxygen so that a Defibrillator can be used to try and restart their heart.

  3. I hate that people think that they need to stick something in someones mouth when they are seizing! People are like "oh you'll swallow your tongue" you tongue is attatched to the bottom of your mouth! I am an epileptic & have had stuff shoved into my mouth by friends who didnt know better & I bit the crap out of my whole entire mouth because of it.

  4. Thanks to advanced, manufactured tourniquets there are thousands of soldiers, Iraqi and Afghan citizens and trauma patients all over the world who would disagree with item number 7. While it is crucial to be trained in assessing arterial bleeding and using a modern tourniquet, the myth that has cost thousands of lives is that tourniquets should only be used as a last resort - "life or limb" situation. Combat experience over the last 7 years has proven that proper tourniquet use can not only save lives, but even limbs if vascular surgery is available in an adequate time window. If the U.S. Army had not been deployed to Haiti after the earthquake, there would be less survivors. The Army personnel were the only emergency relief personnel who had tourniquets - every soldier. http://www.jems.com/article/major-incidents/tourniquet-first http://www.bloomberg.com/video/83426180-iraq-war-innovations-find-wider-use.html http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-57339769/how-a-simple-tool-saved-many-u.s-lives-in-iraq/ Multiple clinical studies like the one below have proven that under the right circumstances, touniquets should be the first choice to stop exsangination due to limb trauma. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19106667?dopt=Abstract It is a shame that so many deaths occur due to exsanguination because first responders are afraid to use tourniquets. Every glovebox in every car should have one. Every camper or hiker should carry one. EMTs, Police and Firefighters should carry several. Disaster relief agencies should have thousands because traumatic limb injuries are common in virtually every kind of disaster. Google the recent clinical research.

  5. I am a first aid instructor and I am an Emergency Medical Responder (the level just below a paramedic) and CPR resuscitates about 1% of patients and only if they're not in cardiac arrest. With the help of an AED and CPR, resuscitation increases to 5% outside of a hospital. This percentage is increasing all the time with the appearance of more and more AEDs. CPR may not resuscitate the patient but it will keep the organs alive long enough to get to the hospital so they can make organ donation decisions, depending on how long it took to begin CPR. PS. The more likely scenario is the person is not in cardiac arrest but in Ventricular Tachycardia or Ventricular Fibrillation.

    • Hi Sarah, Whilst you are roughly correct about your statistics, your definition of a cardiac arrest is a little misleading. A cardiac arrest in the cessation of normal blood flow as a result of heart compromise; therefore pulseless ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation ARE cardiac arrests. In fact, an AED will only be effective on this type of patient who presents with some form of disjointed electrical activity of the heart, unlike the asystole patient. To elaborate on the point you are getting at: CPR often doesn't save lives, it simply maintains it. Defibrillation of the heart is of most importance. But since the heart can only be defibrillated whilst there is still electrical activity, CPR can work to (amongst other things) sustain electrical activity until an AED can be applied.

  6. I am a member of CERT (Citizens Emergency Response Team), sponsored by the Dept. of Homeland Security. In our training we were taught how to use a tourniquet properly. Gangrene will set in if a tourniquet is left on too long. It should only be left on long enough to stop the major bleeding.

    • Levi, Most of the experience with tourniquets in combat determined that improvised tourniquets (a belt and a stick) were the least effective in stopping arterial bleeding and most likely to cause permanent nerve damage. Does CERT recognize/use manufactured, pre-hospital tourniquets? I can arrange to send you a sample C-A-Tourniquet (CAT) if you are interested. This is the pre-hospital tourniquet that has been issued to all soldiers in the U.S. military since 2004. Dave

    • As a marine who carries a tourniquet and in my training (I am a medic) on field and off it is essential that if you use a tourniquet YOU DO NOT TAKE IT OFF. Tourniquets are the last resort, and are "life or limb" decisions. If you take it off the wound will most likely resume bleeding.

  7. I was taught advanced first aid by the Red Cross . The woman who instructed me was an M.D. and she had traveled to under developed countries to help victims of natural disasters. This was a maximum of three years ago and she swears by the touniquet method if there is more bleeding than you can stop from applying pressure.

    • Bleeding control steps... 1) Direct pressure, 2) Elevate, 3) Pressure point, and 4) Tourniquet Use these steps in this order. If direct pressure is all it takes... great! If not, elevate it. Still not working... use a pressure point and if it works stop there. Not working? Then use a tourniquet as a last resort because the bleeding is obviously bad if the first 3 steps didn't work.

  8. Actually, sucking out snake venom with your mouth IS dangerous. First off, our mouths are not especially clean places. By putting your mouth over ANY wound, you're increasing the chances if introducing some nasty bacteria into the wound and causing an infection. Secondly, if you have a sore in your mouth (a canker sore, or even an open sore from biting the side of your cheek) the venom can get into your blood stream, and you can be poisoned. Finally, as the article says, by the time you get your mouth on the wound and start sucking the venom will already be working its way around the victim's body. It doesn't just sit at the site of the bite and wait to be extracted. So not only do you put yourself at risk for being poisoned and the victim at risk for an infection, trying to suck out the venom likely won't do any good.

    • Yes Jane, that's what Peter said. You understood that he was debunking myths, not giving guidelines?

  9. I would like to see some references backing these statements up. I find some of them a bit hard to believe. As for the snake venom the claim is utter rubbish. It's harmless to drink snake venom (two exceptions http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venomous_snake). The venom consists of proteins that are incapable of passing membranes. So suck away! it certainly won't damage anyone. I don't know if it would help either.

  10. interesting article but makes me think what % of the population can do basic first aid. Not taught in schools, when they have the time to teach it..

  11. Drink milk or water when poisoned, in my opinion it is true . As you know chemical has characteristic, scientist do some test with the chemical before they released to public. We know about LD (Lethal dose) can be fatal to someone who poisoned above of LD level. Water or milk can break the concentration of poison to low the LD concentration. But how much it takes we do not know well. Some people do until the victim vomit to egress the poison out. I do agree that poison will damage layer of tissue twice (Once swallowed and then vomited). for your notice in the rural area, poison center is not available, so what we can is do as best as we can. (My apology for any grammar or sentences are unclear, I am an Indonesian which is Bahasa is my primary language.)

  12. I never knew why they put butter on burns too. My grandparents put butter on me when I burned my stomach with an iron. Ouch! I still have a huge scar from that.

  13. Yup, the tourniquet is still taught by US (and probably other) military forces and it does save lives.

  14. Kain beat me to it so I'll say that he is 100% correct. Even in Iraq a casualty severe enough to need a tourniquet is evacuated well before any tissue damage can occur.

  15. You are so WRONG about the tourniquet. It is still taught, and if the situation is severe enough it SAVES LIVES. NEVER loosen a tourniquet once you have applied it! That can be done by a paramedic or a doctor. They can be kept in place for SEVERAL HOURS without causing harm to the tissue. In a civilian situation it rarely takes over four hours to reach a medical professional. Your information is outdated.

  16. Thank you for your opinion Brook. Obviously this is something you feel very passionate about. And you are correct that success would be higher if more people were trained and willing to do CPR immediately.

  17. This page should be torn down because it is absolutely rubbish. The reason CPR has a 3-5% success rate is not because it is ineffective, it is because by the time a paramedic gets to the victim and performs CPR, the victim hasn't been breathing, nor had a heart beat, for 10-15 minutes. They are already dead before CPR is even performed. A physical education teacher used to tell my class a story about a paramedic with a similar topic. A man had a heart attack and when the paramedics arrived, no one had done anything, i.e. the person had been lying there with no help for 10 minutes. Out of vain the paramedic performed CPR knowing it was futile, but what he didn't realise was that the man suffered from pectus excavatum and with each compression, the man's sternum was piercing his heart open. After the autopsy, the family tried to sue the paramedic for killing him, even though he was dead when they arrived. In court, the judge asked the paramedic how often he had performed CPR and he said that he had done it hundreds, if not thousands of times. The judge asked how successful it was and the paramedic responded with a figure of approximately 5%, which of course, outraged the judge. He began to question why they even bother if it so unsuccessful. The paramedic calmly replied that the judge was mistaken, it is not that CPR is ineffective that it rarely works, it is because no one does CPR while they wait for the paramedic so that person lies there, clinically dead, for 10 minutes. And Jared is correct about #9. Inflammation of an injury is one of the bodies defense mechanisms, it provides FASTER healing and kills antigens, preventing infection.

  18. There are a few things I have learned that seem to contradict some of the points in this list. #5 - In the military, we learned that a tourniquet is a permanent application. This is used as a last resort, usually as the result of a compound fracture. Do not apply a tourniquet unless you know that limb is going to be taken off. Working under this assumption, you should never loosen the tourniquet. This could undoubtedly dislodge toxins and possibly bone spurs that would circulate throughout the patients system. Really, would you want stagnant blood from a lost appendage to re-circulate throughout the body? I don't think so. #9 - I am currently in Optometry school... It isn't a MD degree, but we receive a large amount of medical training. Our Systemic disease instructor (who is an MD) taught us that you apply heat on the first day after a strain or sprain. This dilates the blood vessels and allows WBC's and prostiglandins to aid in mending the affected areas. Yes, it will cause the area to swell... but that is the body's natural defense mechanism. This is, of course, for strains/sprains that a patient would feel comfortable treating themselves. With anything major (such as a broken bone), you should listen to the advice of a trained physician (and not something you read off of the internet) =)

  19. In response to Phil, The Good Samaritan act protects well-intentioned citizens from prosecution by law. Of course, if a professional is in close proximity, leave it to them. However, first responders are extremely important in sustaining life until more advanced care arrives. Also, rescue breathing is still important, however the Red Cross emphasizes chest compressions in their official training because the vast majority of unconscious adult victims have experienced some sort of heart failure, and the organization does not trust the average person to efficiently check for a pulse and decide whether compressions are needed. Therefore, they prefer to err on the side of caution and teach people to go directly to chest compressions for adult victims ( the lesson plan still teaches pulse check/rescue breaths for child victims, as heart failure is less likely).

  20. Doc N, #9 is not wrong. By applying a cold pack to the area you decrease swelling and inflammation, at least until you can get medical help. If you allow excess swelling and inflammation there will be more scar tissue (internally) later on, more therapy may be required, and recovery time will be longer.

  21. I`m sorry, but nr 9 is completely wrong. Putting on heat or cold, works in exactly the same way. As you put heat on an inflamed area, the vessels dilate, and the bloodflow to this area increases. This increased bloodflow aids in removing toxins that causes the swelling and inflammation. It does not bring it to the affected area! By putting an icepack on, you constrict (make narrower) the vessels in the area. This has no effect at all, but once you remove the icepack, the reheating causes the vessels to dilate, and wow, the same happens as with a heatpad! Hope this clears it up.

  22. With blood blisters (which occur from something unexpectedly pinching very forcefully on an extremity, possibly an errant hammer blow on the edge of a hand/finger/foot) you're supposed to pop them and drain the blood out, but don't remove the skin because the layer underneath is sub-dermal (under the epidermis, which is your outer layer of skin) and very sensitive and prone to infection. Pop the blood blister, drain all the blood out (so the blister is flat again and you can't tell a blister's been there, except for the small incision where you drained the blood) and put a band-aid over it. The subdermal layer and the 'loose' cover will grow back together and everything will be fine. Just in closing, I've seen news stories recently saying that the CP in CPR is mostly unnecessary and (according to them) doesn't affect the outcome; apparently all that's needed is the chest compressions, but don't take my word for it, use the google to find out the latest techniques. Even then, realize that if a stranger for some reason collapses and needs CPR, you could be endangering yourself (legally) by attempting and failing to resuscitate them. Leave it to the professionals.

  23. You don't learn the ways to "jolt the body and the heart into beating again" because you're not paramedics or a medical professional and you don't have the equipment to be one. AED devices are becoming more popular and will help increase survival rates and the training on AED devices are now standard training topics in CPR/First Aid courses. If a CPR trainer tells you otherwise, they are sadly mistaken. The goal of CPR is to keep oxygen in the system and flowing throught the body, to preserve body tissue until an AED or professional arrives. Seeing as face masks that are smaller then your average key chain can be bought and kept on your car keys, there are LOTS of people that carry them. Regardless of whether I have my mask or not, I'll be doing the CPR, as a little vomit is a minor nuisance compared to the person being dead.

  24. Part of the issue with CPR is inexperienced improperly trained people trying to do it. The compressions and breathes are too shallow. I'm not saying that I'm against people being trained in CPR but I think much more emphasis needs to be put on doing it correctly. That said, defibs and ACLS are going to do more for those people any day.

  25. Great article. Everytime I recert CPR, it seems more and more ridiculous: the save-lives statistic continues to go down. There are ways to jolt the body and the heart into beating again. Why don't we learn them. CPR sucks. And 3-5% threshold for potentially gaining someone's disease (their heart stop - likelihood of blood-born pathogens is probably high) and who -ever- carries a vomit mask, but for medical personnel on-the-job? I suspect TV for terrible myths: like cutting holes in throats.

    • Just because their heart stopped it doesn't mean they have blood borne pathogens or communicable disease. Everyday citizens should not learn how to "jolt" the heart back to life. AEDs are a simple tool that is easily learned in an advanced first aid course and with good CPR a trained person on using an AED correctly and early access to ACLS greatly increases the chance of survival for cardiac patients especially with ACLS paramedics having acces to thrombolitics for longer transport times and more cath labs available in hospitals. I believe that everyone should learn proper CPR as well as learn to use an AED correctly but not when you think your going to just jolt them back to life like in the movies Daniel EMT/PCP

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