I am often surprised by how some of my patients manage their injuries before they come to the emergency room. I think my own mother is also guilty of practicing some really strange methods while I was growing up.
Over the years, medical advice and management has evolved. What may have made sense years ago is now out of date and has been replaced with more sound research and often logic.
Here are just a few of the first aid practices and myths that I have seen over the years.
- Should you put butter on a burn? The idea behind this myth is not entirely wrong. Butter can help alleviate the initial pain caused by a burn because of its direct cooling effect. This, however, does not last long because butter, or any greasy substance for that matter, will actually slow down the release of heat from the skin. This means that the trapped heat can continue to burn the skin. Rather run the affected area under cool running tap water for up to 20 minutes immediately after the burn.
- Should you lean your head back during a nose bleed? This one I see all the time and it is very wrong. If you lean your head back during a nosebleed you will inevitably swallow blood. This blood can irritate the stomach and cause nausea and vomiting. It can even cause you to choke. Rather pinch the nose closed and lean your head forward.
- Should you put something in someone’s mouth when they are having a seizure? This is often done to try and prevent someone from biting his or her tongue during a seizure. Tongue biting does happen often, but it very rarely causes any airway obstruction. You are more likely to cause an airway obstruction from whatever you have put in the mouth. Seizures can look really scary but it’s better to move that person to a flat surface and clear the area around them so that they cannot injure themselves, while waiting for the seizure to end.
- Should you use rubbing alcohol for a fever in a baby? Many parents try to reduce their little one’s fevers by rubbing alcohol directly on the skin or adding it to a sponge bath. As alcohol evaporates it can significantly cool the skin and potentially help reduce a fever. The problem with this is that rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) is also quickly absorbed into the skin and the fumes inhaled, which can lead to alcohol poisoning.
- Should you keep a child awake after a bump to the head? Parents often ask me if their little one is allowed to sleep after taking a knock to the head. It is no longer recommended to keep someone awake after a head injury. The concern was always that if someone with a concussion went to sleep that they would not wake up. If there are no red flags then it is perfectly acceptable to allow your child to sleep. Sleep is actually really important for the brain to heal.
- Should you lift your arms above your head if you are choking or coughing? Someone who has a partial airway obstruction will still be able to cough. You should do nothing else but encourage coughing. When I was a child, my mother used to make me lift my arms up above my head. This can actually be dangerous because when you lift your arms, this movement causes the neck to move as well. The object causing the irritation may then slip further down into the airway and cause a complete obstruction.
- Should you make someone vomit if they have swallowed a potential poison? Do not make your child or anyone else vomit by giving Ipecac syrup or even sticking your finger in their throats. This can be very harmful, especially if the poison swallowed is burning or corrosive. The substance may get breathed into the lungs when vomited up and can cause serious damage. The substance may also cause more damage to the lining of the oesophagus when vomited. The best thing to do is to call an ambulance or head straight to your nearest emergency room.
- If someone feels faint, should they sit with their head between their knees? If you do this and the person bent over does faint, they can fall out of the chair and get injured. Fainting is usually caused by decreased blood to the brain. If you are seated and put your head between your legs you will only slightly increase blood flow to the brain. It is far better to make that person lie down flat on their back and raise their legs. If the person has already fainted you should also lay them on their back and raise their legs.
- Should you apply heat to a sprain, strain or fracture? Cold is commonly used for acute injuries and heat for more chronic conditions. Heat causes blood vessels to dilate, which increases blood flow, swelling and ultimately pain, and cold has the opposite effect. After a sprain, strain or fracture it is better to apply ice to help with the swelling and pain. Heat is very good for muscle spasms and other inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. Heat reduces muscle tension and causes muscles to relax. The increase in blood flow caused by the heat also helps remove pain-causing inflammatory cells and bring in healing cells.
- Should you put raw steak on a black eye? We can probably thank the Looney Tunes for this one! The only benefit you will get from this myth is the effects of the cold. Meat is often full of bacteria so while a big piece of raw steak will help with the swelling, it may cause an eye infection in the process. It is much better to apply an ice pack or even a frozen bag of peas.
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