First aid is the immediate care a sick or injured person gets. In some cases, it may be the only care a person needs. In others, first aid is a way to prevent a person’s condition from worsening and keep them alive until paramedics arrive or they are taken to the hospital.
The best way to prepare for these events is to get official first-aid training. In the meantime, there are some basic life-saving steps you can learn.
This article goes over the first aid steps to follow in 10 different situations and how to tell if more care is needed.
ABCs of First Aid
If someone is unconscious or unresponsive, the basic principle of first aid that you need to know is ABC: airway, breathing, and circulation.
- Airway: If someone’s not breathing, the first thing you need to do is clear their airway.
- Breathing: If you have cleared a person’s airway but they’re still not breathing, provide rescue breathing.
- Circulation: As you are doing rescue breathing, perform chest compressions to keep the person’s blood circulating. If the person is breathing but is not responsive, check their pulse. If their heart has stopped, provide chest compressions.
Whenever possible, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before providing first aid. Use hand sanitizer only if soap and water are not available. This will help keep you from passing bacteria on to the person you are assisting.
A simpler version of the ABCs is:
- Awake? If the person is not awake, try to wake them. If they don’t wake up, make sure someone is calling 911 and move on to the next step.
- Breathing? If a person is not awake and not breathing, start rescue breathing and chest compressions. Then, move to the next step.
- Continue care: When you call for help, follow instructions from 911 or continue treatment until an ambulance arrives.
Some first aid courses also include D and E:
- D can stand for: Disability assessment, deadly bleeding, or automated external defibrillator (AED). An AED is a device that shocks the heart to make it start beating again.
- E can stand for: Examination (checking the person for signs of injury, bleeding, allergies, or other problems once you know they’re breathing and their heart is beating).
Where to Get First Aid Training
Taking a formal CPR class will help you become familiar with doing chest compressions, rescue breathing, and using an AED. You can find courses from the American Red Cross, your local community first responders, and online.
First Aid for a Stopped Heart
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is one of the most important emergency medical procedures that a person can know.
If a person’s heart is not beating, they could die. When a person is in cardiac arrest, doing CPR and/or using an AED could save their life.
AEDs are available in many public areas and businesses. These first aid devices are made to be easy to use even if you have no training.
What to Do
If you think someone is in cardiac arrest, there are four steps you can take to help them.
- Find a person nearby. Make eye contact, point to them, and say: “Call 911.”
- Start doing chest compressions on the person who needs help. Using both your hands, push down hard and fast in the center of the person’s chest. Let their chest come back up naturally between compressions. You may hear pops or snaps; this is normal.
- Keep going until someone with more training arrives.
- If you’re trained in CPR, you can use chest compressions and rescue breathing.
- If it’s available, use an AED. However, do not put off doing chest compressions to go look for an AED. If possible, instruct someone else to go find the device and bring it to you.
First Aid for Bleeding
If someone is injured and bleeding, there are a few basics about how blood works that will be helpful for you to know.
The color of the blood and how it’s leaving the body can give you a sense of the extent of the injury:
- Capillaries: Bleeding from the smallest blood vessels (capillaries) looks like a trickle. This kind of bleeding usually stops on its own.
- Veins: A consistent blood flow and blood that’s a dark red color is most likely coming from the veins. This type of bleeding can range from mild to severe.
- Arteries: Arteries are the largest blood vessels and carry a lot of oxygen. If they are injured, bright red blood will spurt out. Blood can be lost very fast with this kind of bleeding.
Almost all bleeding can be controlled with first aid. If severe bleeding keeps going, a person can go into shock and may die.
What to Do
While it is important to stop bleeding, begin with the ABCs of first aid.
The next steps are to:
- Wash your hands or put on disposable gloves if you have them. This will protect you from infectious diseases like viral hepatitis and HIV/AIDS that can be spread in a person’s blood.
- Rinse the wound with water.
- Cover the wound with a gauze or cloth (e.g., towel, blanket, clothing).
- Apply direct pressure to stop the flow of blood and encourage clotting (when blood naturally thickens to stop blood loss).
- Elevate the bleeding body part above the person’s head if you can.
- Do not remove the cloth if it becomes soaked. Removing the first layer will interfere with the clotting process and result in more blood loss. Instead, add more layers if needed.
- Once bleeding has stopped, put a clean bandage on the wound.
Get medical help if:
- The wound is deep.
- The wound has widely separated sides.
- The injury oozes blood after pressure has been applied.
- The injury is from an animal or human bite.
- The injury is a puncture, burn, or electrical injury.
- You think there is arterial bleeding.
- Blood is soaking through the bandages.
- The bleeding is not stopping.
If you are taking the person to the hospital, make sure that you have someone else who can keep administering first aid while you drive.
First Aid for Choking
Choking happens when a person’s windpipe (trachea) gets blocked by food or an object. It is a serious event that can lead to unconsciousness or even death.
Signs of choking include:
- Gagging, gasping, or wheezing
- Inability to talk or make noise
- Turning blue in the face
- Grabbing at the throat
- Waving arms
- Looking panicked
Using the Heimlich Manuever
The Heimlich maneuver is a series of abdominal thrusts that can help dislodge the thing a person is choking on. This first aid technique should only be done if someone is truly choking.
Before doing anything, ask the person if they are choking. Remember: If someone is coughing or talking, they are not choking.
What to Do
If someone is choking, you should know how to use the Heimlich maneuver.
Here are the steps:
- Stand behind the person and lean them slightly forward.
- Put your arms around their waist.
- Clench your fist and place it between their belly button (navel) and rib cage.
- Grab your fist with your other hand.
- Pull your clenched fist sharply backward and upward under the person’s rib cage in five quick thrusts.
- Repeat until the object is coughed up.
For someone who is obese or pregnant, perform the thrusts around the chest instead of the abdomen.
If someone is choking and becomes unconscious:
- Place them on their back and kneel over them.
- Place the heel of your hand slightly above their belly button.
- Place your other hand on top of it.
- Give quick upward thrusts to dislodge the object.
Helping a Choking Infant
If a baby is choking, you need to use different first aid techniques to help them.
Start with back blows:
- Lay the baby across your forearm, face down.
- Support them with your lap or upper thigh.
- Hold their chest in your hand and jaw between your fingers (the baby’s head should be pointed down so it’s lower than their body).
- With the heel of your free hand, give five quick, forceful blows to the baby’s back between the shoulder blades.
If back blows don’t work, try chest thrusts:
- Turn the baby face up, keeping them on your lap for support.
- Keeping their head angled down, lower than their body, hold the back of their head with your hand to steady it.
- Place two or three of your fingers in the center of the baby’s chest just below the nipples.
- Give five quick thrusts downward so the breastbone gets pushed in about 1.5 inches.
If a choking infant loses consciousness, you may need to do CPR until emergency help arrives.
What to Do if You’re Alone and Choking
You can give yourself the Heimlich maneuver even if you are alone.
- Call 911 first, even though you will not be able to speak. Leave the phone connected. 911 can pinpoint your location and send emergency help. Use a landline if available. If a landline isn’t available, a cell phone can be used.
- Grasp one fist with the other hand and place above your belly button.
- Thrust inward and upward with your fist. Repeat until the object is dislodged.
- You can also bend over a hard surface such as the back of a chair. Use the hard surface to apply repeated thrusts to your abdomen. Repeat until the object is dislodged.
First Aid for Burns
The first step to treating a burn is to stop the burning process.
This might mean:
The severity of a burn is based on how deep in the skin it is and how big it is:
- First-degree burn: This kind of burn only affects only the outer layer of skin and causes redness and swelling. It is considered a minor burn.
- Second-degree burn: This kind of burn affects two layers of skin and causes blistering, redness, and swelling. It is considered a major burn if it’s more than 3 inches wide or is on the face, hands, feet, genitals, buttocks, or over a major joint.
- Third-degree burn: This kind of burn affects deeper layers of skin and causes white or blackened skin that can be numb. It is always considered a major burn.
What to Do
Major burns need emergency medical attention. Once you’ve stopped the burning process, call 911 or get someone else to.
For burns that are not an emergency, you can take these first aid steps:
- Flush the burned area with cool running water for several minutes. Do not use ice.
- Apply a light gauze bandage. If the burn is minor, you can put on an ointment, like aloe vera, before you cover it.
- Take Motrin (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen) for pain relief if you need it.
- Do not break any blisters that form.
First Aid for Blisters
Blisters protect damaged skin while it heals.
Some blisters need to be treated and others don’t. Whether you need to treat a blister depends on how bad it is and your overall health.
What to Do
If the blister is small, not open, and doesn’t hurt, it’s best to leave it alone. You can cover it to prevent rubbing, which could cause it to swell and burst.
Do not pop a small blister. This could let bacteria get inside it and cause an infection.
If the blister is big or painful, you need to take different steps to treat it.
Here are the first-aid steps to take for a more serious blister:
- Wash your hands.
- Sterilize a needle with alcohol.
- Make small holes at the edge of the blister.
- Gently push out the fluid.
- Apply antibiotic ointment.
- Put on a bandage.
- If possible, take steps to protect the area from further rubbing or pressure.
If you have a compromised immune system, you are more likely to get an infection and should not drain a blister on your own. However, your healthcare provider may want to drain it to help prevent infection.
If a blister breaks open on its own:
- Gently wash the area with clean water only.
- Smooth the flap of broken skin over the newly exposed skin, unless it’s dirty, torn, or there is pus under it.
- Put petroleum jelly on it.
- Cover it with a bandage.
Change the bandage any time it gets wet. Take it off when you go to bed to give the area a chance to air out.
First Aid for a Broken Bone or Fracture
Any injury to your limbs, hands, and feet needs to be treated as a broken bone until an X-ray can be done.
While broken bones or fractures do need medical treatment, they do not all require an emergency trip to the hospital. First aid steps can help stabilize the bone until you can see a healthcare provider.
What to Do
In some cases, you will need emergency medical care to deal with a broken bone.
Call 911 if:
- The person is bleeding a lot, is unresponsive, is not breathing, or has more than one injury.
- You think a person has a fracture or other serious injury in their spinal column, head, hip, pelvis, or thigh. In this case, do not move the person.
- A broken bone is poking through the skin (open or compound fracture).
- The area below an injured joint feels cold and clammy or looks bluish.
- You cannot keep the injury from moving well enough to transport the person.
Otherwise, you can use first aid, then go to urgent care or contact your healthcare provider for guidance.
Here’s what to do next:
- Do not try to straighten the bone.
- For a limb, use a splint and padding to keep it still, then elevate it.
- Put a cold pack on the injury—but not directly on the skin. Use a barrier between the ice and the skin to keep the tissue from being damaged. If all you have is ice, put it in a plastic bag and wrap it in a shirt or towel before applying it.
- Give the person anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil (ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxen) for pain.
Some research has shown that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil and Aleve can slow bone healing. However, short-term NSAID use appears to have little or no effect on healing.
First Aid for Sprains
A sprain is an injury to the connective tissues that hold bones, cartilage, and joints together (ligaments).
Sprains are most often caused when the twisting of a joint overstretches or tears these tissues. They tend to happen in the ankles, knees, and wrists.
The symptoms of a sprain are similar to those of a broken bone. A person will need to have an X-ray to figure out which injury they have.
What to Do
The first thing to do is make sure that the injured person stops any unnecessary activity, as moving can make the injury worse.
Sprains often don’t require emergency treatment. However, you should get immediate medical care if the injured person:
- Has severe pain when they move or are touched
- Cannot put any weight on the injured joint
- Has increased bruising
- Has numbness or pins-and-needles near the sprain
- Shows signs of infection
- Has little or no improvement during the first week after the injury happens
If emergency care is not needed, follow these first aid steps:
- Keep the limb as still as possible.
- Apply a cold pack.
- Elevate the injured part if you can do so safely.
- Use NSAIDs for pain.
- Ask your provider about any other treatment for a sprain you might need.
First Aid for Nosebleeds
Nosebleeds can have various causes. In children, the most common cause of a nosebleed is digital trauma—better known as picking your nose.
Other causes of a bloody nose include:
- Dry or hot air
- High altitudes
- Chemical fumes that irritate the nasal passages
- Colds and allergies
- Blowing your nose hard or often
- Trauma to the nose
- Deviated septum (crooked nasal cartilage)
- Nasal polyps (non-cancerous or cancerous growths in the nasal passage and sinuses) or nasal tumors
- Bleeding disorders (e.g., hemophilia and leukemia)
- High blood pressure
- Frequent use of nasal sprays, decongestants, and antihistamines
- Blood thinners (e.g. warfarin)
- Cocaine and other drugs that are inhaled or snorted
Many of these things dry out or damage the delicate membranes in your nostrils, causing them to get crusty and burst when irritated.
What to Do
First aid for a nosebleed has a few simple steps.
If your nose is bleeding:
- Lean slightly forward, not back.
- Pinch your nose just below the bridge. It needs to be high enough that the nostrils are not pinched closed.
- After five minutes, check to see if the bleeding has stopped. If not, continue pinching and check after another 10 minutes.
- Apply a cold pack to the bridge of your nose while you’re pinching.
In some cases, you will need to let your provider know if you have a bloody nose.
Call your provider if:
- You get frequent nosebleeds.
- You have anemia symptoms (e.g., weakness, faintness, fatigue, and pale skin).
- You’re taking blood thinners.
- You have a clotting or bleeding disorder.
- You just started a new medication.
- You also have unusual bruising.
You might need to seek emergency medical care for a bloody nose.
Call 911 or go to the emergency room if:
- The bleeding will not stop even after more than 15 minutes of direct pressure.
- There is a lot of blood loss.
- You have a hard time breathing.
- You’ve swallowed a lot of blood and vomited it up.
- You’ve had a serious injury or a blow to the head.
First Aid for Frostbite
Frostbite happens when the body’s tissues freeze deeply in the cold. This is the opposite of a burn, but the damage it does to your skin is almost the same.
What to Do
Treating frostbite involves carefully and gradually warming the affected area. If at all possible, it should only be done by a medical professional.
If that’s not possible, or while you’re waiting for an ambulance, you can begin first aid for frostbite.
- Get out of the cold.
- Put the affected area in warm water (98 to 105 degrees) for 20 to 30 minutes.
- Do not rub the affected area.
- Do not use sources of dry heat (e.g., heating pads, fireplace).
- For fingers and toes, you can put clean cotton balls between them after they have warmed up.
- Loosely wrap the area with bandages.
- Use Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen) for pain.
- Get medical attention as soon as possible.
For small areas of minor frostbite, you can also warm the area with skin-to-skin contact (putting your skin on someone else’s).
Get emergency treatment if the skin is hard and begins turning white.
First Aid for Bee Stings
Bee stings can hurt a lot but are only a minor problem for many people. However, for people who are allergic to bee venom, a sting can be deadly.
An allergy can develop at any time—that’s why it’s important to always watch for an allergic reaction after a bee sting.
Signs of an allergic reaction to a sting include:
- Swelling away from the area that was stung
- Hives (raised, large red or skin-colored bumps)
- Signs of anaphylaxis (a life-threatening allergic reaction that can cause hives, swelling, chest pain, confusion, sweating, blue lips and nails, and trouble breathing)
What to Do
Call 911 immediately or get the person to the hospital if they have signs of an allergic reaction to a bee sting.
If the person who was stung has a known allergy to bee stings, use an EpiPen to prevent anaphylaxis.
In someone without a known bee allergy, watch for signs of an allergy while you’re performing first aid:
- Get the stinger out immediately. This will prevent additional venom from getting into the person. To remove a stinger, it is best to use a straight-edged object such as a credit card to scrape the stinger out of the skin. Avoid squeezing the venom sac with tweezers or your fingers, as this can inject venom into the skin.
- Wash the area with soap and water.
- Use a cold pack to help with the swelling at the site; however, do not apply ice directly to the skin.
- Use an allergy medication or antihistamine (like Benadryl) to reduce swelling and itching.
- Use Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen) for pain.
First Aid Kit List
First aid kits are sold at many pharmacies and department stores, but you can also make your own. You should keep one in your vehicle and in your home.
A basic first-aid kit should contain:
- Adhesive bandages in multiple sizes and shapes
- Gauze pads in multiple sizes
- Compress dressings
- Adhesive cloth tape
- A roll of gauze
- Latex gloves
- Antiseptic wipes
- Antibiotic ointment
- Hydrocortisone ointment
- A breathing barrier for performing CPR
- An instant cold compress
- Baby aspirin
- An oral thermometer
- An emergency blanket
If you can get formal first aid training, that’s the best way to know what to do if a medical emergency happens to you, a loved one, or even a stranger.
Even without formal training, it helps to know the ABCs (airway, breathing, and circulation) and how to do CPR.
Attempting to provide first aid care is often better than doing nothing. Sometimes, acting quickly can save a person’s life.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are common first aid procedures?
CPR, the Heimlich maneuver, and assessing and treating minor injuries like wounds, burns, sprains, and broken bones are common first aid procedures covered in a basic first aid course.
Should I use a tourniquet to stop bleeding?
This is best left to healthcare professionals, as there are big risks to using a tourniquet—even when it’s done the right way. However, if direct pressure is not stopping the bleeding and a person’s life is in danger, anyone can make a tourniquet using a belt or torn piece of fabric.