Ten Principles Of First Aid You Need To Know

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First aid is defined as the immediate care given to an acutely injured or ill person. It can literally be life-saving so it behooves all of us to know some basic principles. What follows are some rules that cover common conditions and general practices:

  1. Don’t panic. Panic clouds thinking and causes mistakes. When I was an intern and learning what to do when confronted with an unresponsive patient, a wise resident advised me when entering a “code blue” situation to always “take my own pulse first.” In other words, I needed to calm myself before attempting to intervene. It’s far easier to do this when you know what you’re doing, but even if you encounter a situation for which you’re unprepared, there’s usually some good you can do. Focus on that rather than on allowing yourself an unhelpful emotional response. You can let yourself feel whatever you need to feel later when you’re no longer needed.
  2. First, do no harm. This doesn’t mean do nothing. It means make sure that if you’re going to do something you’re confident it won’t make matters worse. If you’re not sure about the risk of harm of a particular intervention, don’t do it. So don’t move a trauma victim, especially an unconscious one, unless not moving them puts them at great risk (and by the way, cars rarely explode). Don’t remove an embedded object (like a knife or nail) as you may precipitate more harm (e.g., increased bleeding). And if there’s nothing you can think to do yourself, you can always call for help. In fact, if you’re alone and your only means to do that is to leave the victim, then leave the victim.
  3. CPR can be life-sustaining. But most people do it wrong. First, studies suggest no survival advantage when bystanders deliver breaths to victims compared to when they only do chest compressions. Second, most people don’t compress deeply enough or perform compressions quickly enough. You really need to indent the chest and should aim for 100 compressions per minute.  That’s more than 1 compression per second. If you’re doing it right, CPR should wear you out. Also, know that CPR doesn’t reverse ventricular fibrillation, the most common cause of unconsciousness in a patient suffering from a heart attack. Either electricity (meaning defibrillation) or medication is required for that. But CPR is a bridge that keeps vital organs oxygenated until paramedics arrive. Which is why…
  4. Time counts. The technology we now have to treat two of the most common and devastating medical problems in America, heart attacks and strokes, has evolved to an amazing degree, but patients often do poorly because they don’t gain access to that technology in time. The risk of dying from a heart attack, for example, is greatest in the first 30 minutes after symptoms begin. By the time most people even admit to themselves the chest pain they’re feeling could be related to their heart, they’ve usually passed that critical juncture. If you or someone you know has risk factors for heart disease and starts experiencing chest pain, resist the urge to write it off. Get to the nearest emergency room as quickly as you can. If someone develops focal weakness of their face, legs, or arms, or difficulty with speech or smiling, they may be having a stroke, which represents a true emergency. Current protocols for treatment depend on the length of time symptoms have been present. The shorter that time, the more likely the best therapies can be applied.
  5. Don’t use hydrogen peroxide on cuts or open wounds. It’s more irritating to tissue than it is helpful. Soap and water and some kind of bandage are best.
  6. When someone passes out but continues breathing and has a good pulse, the two most useful pieces of information to help doctors figure out what happened are: 1) the pulse rate, and 2) the length of time it takes for consciousness to return.
  7. High blood pressure is rarely acutely dangerous. First, high blood pressure is a normal and appropriate response to exercise, stress, fear, and pain. Many patients I follow for high blood pressure begin panicking when their readings start to come in higher.  But the damage high blood pressure does to the human body takes place over years to decades. There is such a thing as a hypertensive emergency, when the blood pressure is higher than around 200/120, but it’s quite rare to see readings that high, and even then, in the absence of symptoms (headache, visual disturbances, nausea, confusion) it’s considered a hypertensive urgency, meaning you have 24 hours to get the pressure down before you get into trouble.
  8. If a person can talk or cough, their airway is open. Meaning they’re not choking. Don’t Heimlich someone who says to you, “I’m choking.”
  9. Most seizures are not emergencies. The greatest danger posed to someone having a seizure is injury from unrestrained forceful muscular contractions.  Don’t attempt to move a seizing person’s tongue. Don’t worry—they won’t swallow it. Move any objects on which they may hurt themselves away from the area (including glasses from their head) and time the seizure. A true seizure is often followed by a period of confusion called “post ictal confusion.” Your reassurance during this period that they’re okay is the appropriate therapy.
  10. Drowning doesn’t look like what you think it does. For one thing, drowning people are physiologically incapable of crying out for help.  In fact, someone actually drowning is usually barely moving at all (I strongly encourage everyone to click on this link to learn more about how to recognize what drowning does look like).

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  • Alex, thanks so much for this information, especially that on drowning. I clicked the link, and I’m so glad I did–I really did not have a clue what drowning looks like until I read the article. I’m much better equipped to save a life, should I ever be in a position to do so.

  • This is great–thanks. I’d stumbled across the link for the drowning article last week and have already been sending it to all my fellow parents (discomfiting as it is to read!) I’ll share this as well.

  • #10 is a really important point that is underappreciated, particularly in these parts, where there have been tens of drownings since the summer began.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Pamela Templin, Alex Lickerman. Alex Lickerman said: https://imaginemd.com/2010/07/25/ten-principles-of-first-aid-you-need-to-know/ […]

  • The tip about H2O2 is particularly helpful. Thanks.

  • Dear Trusted Source,
    Thanks for this guide on first aid. Its so helpful to get a topline list from a doctor.

    I hope I never have to mentally refer to it!!
    Take Care,

  • Great intel; many of us have forgotten certain details of first aid—most of us remember when we either where children or the last time we did something way out of our control without seeing where we where going…

    Then we met first aid again.

    Thank you for thee Intel!!!

  • Great post, Alex! I followed you here from Penelope Trunk’s blog and found this post of yours very helpful especially as it lead me to gCaptain’s post which I included in my own post today. While I included you in a tag. I’m saving this post to link to a little later.


    I hope you don’t mind the link here and if you wish to delete it I will certainly understand.

    Elizabeth: Don’t mind the link at all! Thanks for contributing.


  • I hope to heaven I can remember these if I ever have need of them. Thank you.

    But what is “focal weakness,” please?

    Bill: “Focal weakness” indicates weakness of one part of the body or one muscle only (as compared to generalized weakness that refers to a feeling of lethargy). Focal weakness usually indicates a stroke. Generalized weakness does not.


  • I found this list very helpful. I agree with the information about what drowning doesn’t look like. Last weekend I was involved in an open water rescue of two children caught in a riptide in the North Sea. Drowning doesn’t look anything like you expect. They were floating in the water like seat cushions. Thankfully, both boys recovered.

  • This is beautiful, cheers!!!

  • Thanks a lot, Alex. I will be able to present my project work in school knowing perfectly well that the answers provided are correct. God bless you.

  • I am sure this will be helpful. Well done.

  • I’m glad that you talked about how not to use the Heimlich maneuver on someone who can say “I’m choking.” If I were to be with a friend at a restaurant and he starts choking, I would call an urgent care unit. Calling the urgent care unit would help my friend stop choking and we can go back to breaking bread with my friend.

  • I agree when you said that a person experiencing symptoms of a heart attack should rush immediately to the hospital. Reading this reminds me of my uncle, who was diagnosed to have higher chances of getting that. With this, do you have any tips on how I could train his personal maid, chef, and driver on first aid? With their experience, they can increase his chances of survival.

    Tim: Other than having people trained in CPR, the key to saving the life of anyone who might be having a heart attack is to recognize that might be what’s going on and to call 911 so they can be transported to the nearest hospital as soon as possible.


  • It’s really easy method of explaining.