Sh—t happens. Sometimes it’s minor, but occasionally it’s very serious—either way, the first few minutes after an injury are usually the most critical. You need to know what to do, remain calm, and be prepared to take action. Although not every emergency requires a trip to the ER, you should always call 911 if you feel it’s necessary. But if that’s not an option and you’re forced to take care of business on your own, here’s what to do if you...
Are Bitten by a Snake
Your chances of being bitten by a snake are small—unless you’re a young, drunk male. “Approximately 98% of all snakebites occur in men, and 40% of all people bitten had a blood-alcohol level greater than 0.1%,” says Doug Ross, M.D., an emergency physician in Las Vegas. “What’s more, 40% of bites occur in people who are handling or playing with snakes.” Hikers are usually bitten on the feet or ankles; drunks are usually bitten on the fingers or hands. In North America, the most common snakebites are from pit vipers—copperheads, water moccasins, and rattlesnakes—and severe envenomation will require an antivenin. “Rarely are these bites fatal, but if a severe case is left untreated, the venom can cause kidney failure, cardiac arrest, and blood-clotting abnormalities that can lead to severe bleeding,” says Abdulla Kudrath, M.D., an emergency physician in Ft. Worth, TX.
● Immobilize the affected area—some recommend keeping the wound site above the heart, and stay calm to reduce the flow of venom.
● If you can do so without wasting much time or risking another bite, take a cell-phone picture of the snake, or note identifying details to help physicians determine the correct antivenin.
● DO NOT apply a tourniquet, cut the skin around the wound, or attempt to suck out the venom; all are dangerous and could lead to further damage. Equally useless are the suction devices that are included in some first-aid kits.
Come Down With a Cold or Flu
Both influenza and the common cold are contagious respiratory illnesses caused by viral infections. The flu typically comes on more suddenly than a cold, and can cause fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headaches, and fatigue. In some cases, vomiting and diarrhea are present, but not usually in adults.
● Kudrath says resting and rehydrating are mainstays. However, a severely ill patient may need to go to the ER—the flu kills more than 30,000 people a year in the U.S.
● Fever—the body’s natural response to infection—creates an environment unfavorable to the replication of virus- es. For a high fever (above 102°), try an NSAID to help control body temperature.
● DO NOT “starve a cold and feed a fever.” Eat small amounts of nutritious food when you’re hungry, and drink plenty of clear fluids to replace electrolytes and water even if you’re not thirsty.
● NOTE: Antibiotics are used to kill bacteria, not viruses. “People want antibiotics for everything,” Ross says, “but it’s unlikely that they’ll help, as 95% of respiratory infections are viral.”
Suffer Electric Shock
Electric shock refers to injuries caused by direct contact with live electrical connections—including lightning. (The term “electrocution” was first used as a portmanteau word combining “electrical execution” in the latter part of the 19th century. It’s often misused as a synonym of electric shock, but it actually refers to circumstances of death by electrical causes.)
● Since you’ll be knocked out, your job is done. You’d better hope, however, that someone around you calls 911.
● If you’re not the victim, DO NOT touch the victim if he’s still touching a live electrical source. Either turn off the power to the source, or use a nonconductive material (like the sole of your shoe) to break the contact.
Sprain Your Ankle
Approximately 25,000 people sprained an ankle today, simply by twisting, rolling, or turning a foot in such a way that it stretched the ankle ligaments beyond the normal range. “Obvious deformity is indicative of a fracture or dislocation,” Ross says. “Get it evaluated.”
● If it’s severely sprained or deformed, make a splint. “Fold a sturdy piece of cardboard in two places and gently wrap it around the ankle,” Ross says, “or roll up two magazines and put one on either side, then tape it together with duct tape or tie it with a shirt— but not too tightly.”
● DO NOT try to reset the joint.
● Seek medical treatment.
● For mild sprains, treat with “RICE”:
1. Rest the ankle by not walking on it.
2. Ice the ankle, applying the ice immediately to reduce swelling, and using it 10–20 minutes, three to four times daily.
3. Compress using elastic bandages to reduce swelling of the injured ankle.
4. Elevate the ankle above your heart for the first two days.
Have Something in Your Eye
Not stars, not twinkles. It’s the gritty, manly stuff like grass or dirt or shards of something that can cause tearing, headache, blurred vision, or photophobia. It’ll drive you to distraction until you get it out. Here’s how you do it without damaging your cornea.
● DO NOT press on or rub your eye, or use your dirty finger, a Q-tip, or tweezers to try removing the foreign object. Wash your hands before attempting treatment.
● Irrigate the eye by leaning your head with the affected eye down. Gently pour water from a faucet, pitcher, or sterile saline bottle onto the eye.
● If irrigation doesn’t work the first time, try holding your top eyelid out over your bottom one.
● Follow up with an eye-care professional. “Even if the eye feels better, there could be some damage that isn’t immediately obvious,” Ross says.
Have a Nosebleed
In the absence of other medical problems such as cancer, renal failure, or a bleeding disorder, most spontane-
ous nosebleeds are caused by picking, even if you don’t care to admit it. “In arid or cold climates, the nasal septum gets dry and can bleed if you blow too hard or pick your nose,” says Ross.
● Lean slightly forward so the blood doesn’t run down your throat.
● Pinch nostrils for 5–15 minutes.
● Stay calm. Anxiety increases blood flow.
● If bleeding continues, apply ice to the bridge of your nose or pressure to your upper lip.
● Avoid blowing your nose. Use a sterile saline to rinse. Seal in the moisture with a thin coating of Vaseline.
● CAUTION: If bleeding won’t stop, or you have difficulty breathing, call 911.
Loose a Permanent Tooth
You go into a bar, check out the hot girl sitting by herself, and make your move. But then the hot girl’s Hells Angel boyfriend shows up in a foul mood and decides to separate you from your teeth. What do you do?
● Collect tooth (or teeth). If the tooth is broken, you can’t save it, except for sentimental reasons. If it came out whole, try to reinsert it yourself within 30 minutes.
How? Glad you asked:
1) Rinse it gently with water if necessary, being careful not to handle the roots.
2) Use a mirror to align it, then push it back into place. (You’ll probably have to use more force than you’d expect.) Bite down on a cloth or gauze pad to hold it in place.
● If you can’t reinsert the tooth, store it in milk or between your cheek and gum to prevent drying, and seek emergency medical attention.
● Follow up with a dentist even if the tooth is back in place.
Have a Heart Attack (or think you're having one)
It’s the end of a long, stressful day and you’re frustrated or angry or exhausted—and alone. Suddenly you feel severe chest pain that radiates to your left arm or jaw—a deep, crushing pain that gets worse with exertion. Maybe you become nauseated and feel what Kudrath describes as “an impending sense of doom.”
● Call 911. Yep, that’s the first step, because this isn’t one you can MacGyver your way out of.
● Having said that, there are things you can do: Chew—don’t swallow—an aspirin. “The most common cause
of a heart attack is when plaque in the arteries rupture and blood platelets bind to the tears, forming a blood clot that stops blood flow to the heart,” says Kudrath. “Chewing an aspirin disables the platelets and helps prevent further clotting.”
● Don’t try to drive yourself to the hospital. Same goes if you’re a bystander wanting to help the victim. “It may seem like a waste to wait for an ambulance, but once it arrives, paramedics have the knowledge and tools to start treating you [right away],” Kudrath says.
If you’re helping a heart attack victim, the American Heart Association says to perform “hands- only” CPR. Push “hard and fast” on the center of the chest, at a rate of 100 compressions per minute, until help arrives.
Suffer a Burn
“Burns caused by grease, contact with a hot surface, fire, scalding water, or even the sun should all be treated carefully to prevent infection,” says Ross. Burns are typically described in terms of their severity:
1. First degree: affects only the top layers of skin; symptoms are redness and pain.
2. Second degree: reaches underlying layers of skin; symptoms include swelling and blisters.
3. Third degree: destroys all layers of skin and nerves; symptoms can be black or white skin, extreme pain—or even absence of pain.
● Call 911 if you have burns to the hands, feet, face, mouth, or groin; if more than 1% of the body’s is burned (1% of the body’s surface is roughly equivalent to the size of your palm, says Ross); or if you have third-degree burns.
● For first-degree or small second-degree burns, run the skin under cold water for 10 minutes.
● Don’t put ice, butter, or ointment on the burned skin. Cool with a moist compress.
● Cover loosely with sterile gauze bandage.
● Do not break blisters or peel off affected skin. Just leave it alone.
Lose a Limb (or suffer a serious cut)
Your mother told you to keep your arms inside the car, but you just wouldn’t listen, would you? If part of you ends up on the highway or anywhere else but securely attached to your person, your first concern is to stop the bleeding. “You can live without an arm or leg, but if you hemorrhage, you’ll die,” Kudrath says.
● AFTER CALLING 911, apply direct pressure to the wound (or just above the wound) using a clean cloth or towel.
● Stay calm. The hormones released as part of the body’s fight-or-flight response to stress also increase blood flow, which you don’t want.
● If the cloth soaks through, use another on top of it rather than pulling it off the wound.
● If bleeding won’t stop and help is far away, apply a tourniquet just above the wound. “Tourniquets are very serious,” says Kudrath. “When you put one on, you’re effectively saying, ‘I’m choosing life over limb,’ because any tissue below a tourniquet will die without blood flow.”
● Collect the severed limb. Wrap it in plastic and put it in a chest with ice. Don’t put it directly on ice—that could cause frostbite; nor should you try to preserve it in ice water, as that can make reattachment more difficult.