What is first aid?

By the British Red Cross
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Learn enough first aid to save a life.

A blocked airway can kill someone in three to four minutes, but it can take more than eight minutes for an ambulance to arrive. So a simple procedure such as opening someone's airway can save their life while they're waiting for emergency medical help.

The latest government figures, from 2002, estimate 2.7 million people in the UK went to A&E because of an accident in their home.

Of these, 910,000 were aged under 16.

Sadly, almost 4,000 people in England and Wales died because of accidents in or around their home in 2004, according to the Office for National Statistics.

This means you're more likely to give first aid to someone you know than a stranger. Knowing what to do will allow you to react rapidly if an accident does happen.

Top ten home accidents and injuries
Falls (1,248,000)
Strikes and collisions (530,000)
Cuts and tears (230,000)
Foreign bodies (128,000)
Acute overexertion, for example moving furniture (90,000)
Burns, scalds (84,000)
Pinching or crushing injuries (79,000)
Bites, stings (72,000)
Puncture wounds (54,000)
Suspected poisonings (33,000)

What not to do
There are many misconceptions surrounding first aid, some of which can cause serious harm.

Top ten first aid misconceptions
You should put butter or cream on a burn. The only thing you should put on a burn is cold water - keep the butter for cooking.
If you can't move a limb, it must be broken/If you can move a limb, it can't be broken. The only accurate way to diagnose a broken limb is to x-ray it.
The best way to treat bleeding is to put the wound under a tap. If you put a bleeding wound under a tap you wash away the body's clotting agents and make it bleed more.
Nosebleeds are best treated by putting the head back. If you put the head back during a nosebleed, all the blood goes down the back of the airway.
A tourniquet is the best way to treat serious bleeding. It's harmful to stop the blood flow to a limb for more than 10-15 minutes.
If someone has swallowed a poison you should make them sick. If you make someone sick by putting your fingers in their mouth, the vomit may block their airway.
If you perform CPR on someone who has a pulse you can damage their heart. The evidence is that it isn't dangerous to do chest compressions on a casualty with a pulse.
You need lots of training to do first aid. You don't - what you mostly need is common sense. You can learn enough first aid in ten minutes to save someone's life.
You need lots of expensive equipment to do first aid. You don't need any equipment to do first aid, there are lots of ways to improvise anything you need.

Practical training
The next step is to enrol for a hands-on training course, so you can learn how to apply first aid techniques correctly.

There are many recognised first aid training organisations around the country, so it shouldn't be difficult to find a course near your home.

Alternatively, if you work, your employer may provide or subsidise first aid training. If you're the parent of a young child, your health visitor may know of suitable first aid courses.

Courses vary in length - some are as short as half a day.

When it finishes, you'll be tested by a qualified first aider in the essential skills you've learned. If you pass, you'll receive a certificate.

Charges vary depending on the trainer, and the type and length of course you choose.

Training checklist
How much does the training course cost?
What are the trainer's qualifications?
What experience does the trainer have?
When and where will the training session take place?
Will I get an opportunity to practise before my assessment?
Will there by a written part to the assessment or is it just practical?
What happens if I'm not competent in any part of the training?
How many people will be in my training session?
What insurance does the trainer have?

Your duties as a first aider
Anyone performing first aid has some important responsibilities.

Being a first aider
First aid is based on knowledge, training and expertise. A first aider will have completed a practical training course under the supervision of a recognised first aid organisation.

If you're present at the scene of an accident, or during a medical emergency, you need to go through the following stages:

Assess the situation
Take control of your feelings, don't act impulsively
Look for continuing danger, to the casualties and to yourself
Decide whether to call for emergency help

Assess the casualties

Quiet casualties should always be your first priority

A quiet casualty may be an indication that the person is unconscious. Quiet casualties should always be your first priority.

Prioritise treatment of casualties according to severity of injury
Check response by asking casualties whether they are all right
Check airway
Check breathing
If a casualty isn't breathing, ask somebody to call 999 immediately and give 30 chest compressions followed by two rescue breaths
Continue this sequence until emergency help arrives or the casualty starts to show some response

Further assistance to casualties
Aim to give all casualties early and effective help
Arrange for casualties to be taken to hospital where necessary
Remain with casualty until help arrives
Prevent cross-infection between yourself and the casualty
Take care of casualty's possessions and ensure they accompany the casualty to hospital

You and the casualty
Giving first aid isn't always easy and you need to understand the emotional issues involved.

Controlling your feelings
Try to project a confident attitude to the casualty, and act calmly and logically.

Explain what you're doing, calm the casualty's fears and be honest if you can't answer questions.

Ask about next of kin, and whether you can pass a message to anyone.

Coping with your feelings
Don't blame yourself for feelings of distaste when dealing with messy or unpleasant circumstances.

Expect to feel some form of delayed reaction after the emergency

Expect to feel some form of delayed reaction after the emergency and don't reproach yourself for any perceived inadequacies.

Protection against cross-infection
The risks from HIV or hepatitis B are small and can be minimised:

Wash your hands
Wear plastic gloves and an apron where possible
Cover any wounds on your own skin with plasters
Be careful where there are needles present
If, after an incident, you have any fears about infection, contact your doctor

Offering assistance
Don't worry that by offering first aid you're exposing yourself to the risk of legal action. If you do your best, apply your training and don't go beyond the accepted boundaries, you needn't be anxious about the consequences.

First aid kit
Use our guide to check what items to include in your home first aid kit.

6 x medium dressings
For dressing more serious wounds. Dressings control bleeding and prevent infection.

2 x large dressings
For dressing serious wounds. Dressings control bleeding and prevent infection.

2 x extra-large dressings
For dressing serious wounds. Dressings control bleeding and prevent infection.

4 x alcohol-free cleansing wipes
For cleaning wounds when it's not possible to use water. Avoid antiseptic wipes as they can trigger allergic reactions.

2 x disposable gloves
For protection when dressing wounds involving blood and bodily fluids. Use once and discard.

6 x safety pins
For securing the ends of bandages and slings.

1 x pack of plasters
For minor wounds and cuts. Make sure you choose one sufficiently large to cover the wound completely. Note that some people are allergic to the adhesive.

1 x pack of blue plasters
Use to cover wounds when preparing food.

3 x triangular bandages
For use folded as a bandage, opened out as a sling, or as a dressing for large wounds.

1 x resuscitation face shield
This creates a one-way protection between you and a casualty who needs rescue breaths and is bleeding around the mouth.

1 x scissors
For trimming dressings and bandages.

1 x tweezers
For removing small objects such as splinters.

1 x thermometer
For getting an accurate measurement of a patient's temperature to help you decide if they need medical attention.

2 x sterilised pads
For use as dressings.

2 x crepe bandages
For supporting joints, limiting movement or swelling and securing dressings.

1 x adhesive microtape
For securing dressings and bandages. Note that some people are allergic to the adhesive, so don't let it come into contact with their skin.

British Red Cross
Comprehensive first aid advice, guidelines and training courses, plus first aid stories.

St John Ambulance
Comprehensive first aid advice, plus audio files that can be downloaded to your MP3 player.

St Andrew's Ambulance Association
Scotland's leading first aid charity and one of the main providers of first aid training.

Health & Safety Executive
Information on all aspects of first aid at work.