Experts offer advice on how to create a well-stocked first-aid kit
By HELEN CAREFOOT | The Washington Post | Published: September 15, 2020
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When a sick child is crying or you cut your finger while cooking, you don't want to waste time wading through a cluttered drawer stuffed with loose Band-Aids, ointments and cough syrups. Assembling a basic supply of medicines and treatments in one organized place — along with instructions for how to use them — will prepare you to care for yourself and others, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic continues and flu season approaches.
That said, you don't need an entire pharmacy at your house.
"Never underestimate the value of warm soap and water, clean Band-Aids and basic medicines for pain, fever, nasal congestion and cold and flu," said Alexei Wagner, an emergency medicine physician at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif.
We spoke with four physicians about what should be in your home kit. The contents will vary depending on your activities and lifestyle. Here are their general suggestions for creating a well-stocked home arsenal, without overbuying.
Medications to treat basic ailments — with appropriate dosages.
Keep a variety of medicines to treat common illnesses on hand, said John Balmes, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of California at San Francisco's medical school. Some basics he suggests stocking: antacids and antidiarrheal medicines, oral antihistamines like Benadryl, hydrocortisone cream for skin reactions, laxatives, and cough medicine. Medications to treat inflammation, relieve pain and reduce fevers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, belong in your kit, too. Individually packaged doses and chewable medications are convenient when you're in a hurry.
Choose formulations that are appropriate for your family.
Wagner has three children under 6, so he keeps children's dosages and liquid medicines on hand. "I always have liquid acetaminophen, Benadryl and powdered Pedialyte, because dehydrated kids are usually unhappy," he said. In addition to rehydrating kids with stomach or intestinal viruses, Pedialyte can boost liquids in children with fevers or other illnesses, he said.
Supplies for injuries.
Antiseptic solution, alcohol wipes or sterile saline solution are useful to sanitize cuts and scrapes and kill germs that could cause infections, Balmes said. Saline eye wash can help flush irritants from eyes.
Balmes suggests including tools in your kit for various situations. Scissors and tweezers are helpful for cutting bandages or removing insect stingers and splinters. Cotton balls and swabs can be used to cover wounds and apply disinfectants or ointments. Non-latex disposable gloves help keep both injured areas and your hands clean. Balmes also suggests stocking padded aluminum finger splints plus duct tape; the versatile product's durability is especially useful when creating a splint or bandage from scratch, he said, but don't put duct tape directly on skin.
Include supplies specific to injuries you could sustain doing your hobbies. Someone who hikes frequently, for example, should have blister packs, plus tape and splints to treat sprains.
Treatments for cuts, burns, scrapes and bumps.
Supplies that stop bleeding, such as gauze and Band-Aids in various sizes and shapes, and a tourniquet for more extreme situations, are essentials in any kit, said Eileen Bulger, chief of trauma at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and co-founder of Stop the Bleed (stopthebleed.org). "Bleeding is the number one cause of preventable death after injury," said Bulger, who heads the hospital's Level 1 trauma center.
A tourniquet is helpful, because bleeding can progress quickly. To learn how to administer care to stanch bleeding, including how to use a tourniquet properly, Bulger's organization offers free online courses. "You shouldn't get things you're not comfortable using," she said.
Antibiotic ointments to deal with cuts or mild burns.
Even minor burns can be debilitating and require medical treatment, Bulger said, depending on where they are. And items don't have to be fancy. A bag of frozen peas works as an ice pack to prevent swelling after a fall, she said.
Include instructions for using your kit and important information in case of emergency. The most important piece of your kit isn't an object, Wagner said. Preparation and planning can make the difference between a costly emergency room visit in the middle of the night and a next-day appointment or telemedicine session covered by your insurance company. "It's hard to make those decisions when you're worried and panicked," he said.
Gather contact information for physicians and insurance companies, and include instructions for prescriptions and how to use lifesaving items, such as an EpiPen. Preselect trusted websites to turn to for guidance, which could include Web pages for your state and local health authorities and medical provider. Balmes also recommends keeping a first-aid manual at home and in any kit you travel with.
At-home care isn't a substitute for professional care.
Remember: Your first-aid kit does not replace trained medical care. "First aid is either for minor injuries that you don't need to go to the hospital for or for temporizing while you're trying to transport to the hospital," Balmes said. Injuries that leave you immobilized or cause severe pain or a change in mental status are urgent and require immediate care. Balmes adds shortness of breath to that list, too, in light of the pandemic.
Keeping supplies at home will make it easier to seek medical care, said Carolyn Kaloostian, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine.
"To truly treat viruses, you need to see a doctor, but you can provide relief and comfort with over-the-counter medicines," she said. Kaloostian, who also specializes in geriatric medicine, suggests having a scale, blood pressure cuff and thermometer on hand to gather vital information that can give your doctor a fuller picture of your condition and help pinpoint treatment options.
"Knowing basic information helps your doctor quickly eliminate and tailor possibilities, especially if you're seeking care remotely," Kaloostian said.
Consider how first aid at home relates to the pandemic.
Experts have warned about the challenges of the oncoming flu season colliding with the coronavirus, particularly because many mild virus cases present with flu-like symptoms. To prepare, Wagner recommends stocking fever and anti-inflammatory medicines, researching how testing and treatment for the coronavirus works in your area and with your doctor, and getting a flu shot. "If you do get symptoms, take the recommended precautions until you can see a doctor and get tested," Wagner said.
The doctors we spoke with encourage people to get medical care if needed. Bulger, Wagner and Kaloostian noted that the pandemic has made telemedicine more widely available and that hospitals and care facilities have developed and streamlined safety procedures in the months since the pandemic began.
"People should not be afraid to come to the hospital to seek treatment," Bulger said.