First Aid Techniques Everyone Should Know

Accidents happen. So do allergic reactions, heart attacks, and a sudden worsening of chronic health conditions. Knowing what to do when you're faced with a medical emergency can save a life.

"It’s important for everyone to have a basic knowledge of first aid techniques," says Rishi Agrawal, MD, a hospitalist in the Acute Care Clinic at La Rabida Children's Hospital in Chicago. "It’s also wise to think proactively about how you will respond if someone with a chronic medical condition experiences an exacerbation [increase in symptoms] or complication that turns into a medical emergency."

Seasonal Threats to Health and Safety

Summer is prime season for a host of scenarios that can quickly become emergencies, says Andrew Wollowitz, MD, director of the Emergency Department at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "A sting or insect bites can cause an allergic reaction, and when kids are left unsupervised around water, drownings can occur," he says. "When something really goes wrong, it's good to be familiar with some basic techniques."

Here's how to perform some common and useful first aid procedures:

Hands-Only CPR

Some 80% of sudden cardiac arrests occur in a private or residential setting, according to the American Heart Association. Sadly, only 41% of individuals who have a cardiac arrest at home, work, or in public get the fast help they need before emergency help arrives. If you see a teenager or an adult collapse, call 911 and then perform the American Heart Association’s Hands-Only CPR.

Hands-Only CPR? As Wollowitz explains, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is no longer part of the technique, and CPR has gotten a lot easier to perform. CPR courses are offered everywhere, but in brief, here is how to do the AHA’s Hands-Only CPR:

  • Push hard and fast in the center of the person’s chest to the beat of the disco song, "Stayin' Alive." This particular song has around 100 beats per minute, and that’s the rate that you should push on a person's chest as you do CPR.

However, it’s important to note that the American Heart Association "still recommends CPR with compressions and breaths for infants and children and victims of drowning, drug overdose, or people who collapse due to breathing problems."

Help a Choking Victim

If someone is choking, don’t intercede as long as the person can cough: “Let the person try to cough it up on his own,” Wollowitz says. But if the person can’t cough and continues to choke, the Heimlich maneuver can save his life. Here’s how to do it:

  • For a conscious person who is sitting up or standing, stand behind the person and reach your arms around his waist. Position your fist (with the thumb facing in) just above the person's belly button. Grab the fist tightly, using your other hand, and then quickly pull your fist upward and inward. Doing this should increase the airway pressure behind the object that’s causing the obstruction, and force it up and out of the windpipe. You may need to do this several times before the object is dislodged.
  • If the person is conscious but lying down, you can still do the Heimlich maneuver by lying her down on her back and straddling her, facing her head. Push your clenched fist simultaneously upward and inward into the middle of her abdomen.

Stop Bleeding

You don't necessarily have to know how to tie a tourniquet in order to stop someone from bleeding. In fact, tourniquets aren’t even recommended these days, says Joan Bregstein, MD, director of community outreach for Pediatric Emergency Medicine at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital in New York City. "A tourniquet can actually cut off the person’s circulation," she says.

  • The preferred way to stop bleeding is to apply pressure, pressing down firmly on the part of the body that’s bleeding. If it’s a nosebleed you’re trying to stop, have the person put his head down, not back, and pinch on the nostrils for 5 to 10 minutes without stopping, Bregstein says. "You can pinch with a towel, a shirt, a napkin," she explains. "But it is important not to stop applying pressure too soon, or else the blood won't have time to clot."

Treat Burns

To treat a burn correctly, don’t use the old-fashioned technique of putting butter on a burn, which will just make it worse, Bregstein says. Instead,

  • Run cool water over the burned area for several minutes and then apply a little Bacitracin (a topical antibiotic). If the burn is on the face, hands, fingers, genital area, or breast, and if it is more than superficial, seek medical attention, Bregstein advises.

Treat Near Drownings

  • If someone is pulled from the water unconscious, the first thing to do is call 911. If the person is not breathing, perform CPR. If the person is vomiting, gently turn the person on his side in a "recovery position," Agrawal advises.

Administer an EpiPen (epinephrine auto-injector) Injection

Familiarize yourself with how these work, especially if a close friend or a family member is prone to allergies. "Especially in children, an allergic reaction can be life-threatening," Agrawal says.

  • Today’s epinephrine auto-injectors are very easy to use, Agrawal points out. "They are auto-loaded and you just need to make the injection," she explains. Keep in mind that the person still needs to be seen by a doctor since the medication in the injector only lasts for about 20 minutes.

Make a Splint

If you need to stabilize an injured limb, knowing how to place a splint is essential.

  • First, be sure to care for any wounds. Next, splint the body part in the position in which it was found, using something rigid for support, like a stick or board. If these are not readily available, use rolled-up newspapers or a blanket. You want to extend the splint to include the joint above and below the injury to keep the injured joint from moving.
  • Use belts, a necktie, or cloth strips to secure the splint, being sure not to over-tighten so you won’t cut off the circulation.
  • While waiting for professional help to arrive, check the splinted area often for swelling, numbness, or paleness. Splints can decrease pain, but if the splinted area is more painful after you have placed the splint, remove it and wait for medical assistance.

Joan Bregstein, MD, reviewed this article.


"How to Make a Splint." Medline Plus. US National Library of Medicine. Page updated April 16, 2013.

"2012 Hands-Only CPR Fact Sheet." American Heart Association. Page accessed July 9, 2014. 

"Heimlich Maneuver." Medline Plus. US National Library of Medicine. Page updated July 20, 2013.