5 Common First-Aid Tips That Just Don't Work


Anyone who has ever been even slightly injured knows that the world is full of people giving terrible first aid advice. Sadly, not all of that advice is recognizably insane, like "If you get a bee sting, ask a hornet to sting you next -- they cancel each other out." Instead, a lot of what doesn't work is still being passed around as gospel. For example ...

Myth: Putting Ice On A Sprain Helps It Heal

Sprains suck, because you can get one doing almost anything, whether you're competing in the X Games or you just approached a sidewalk too eagerly. And it's with sprains that most people are first introduced to the concept of RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. But while the R, C, and E are all fine, the I may be doing more harm than good.

This tip, which still turns up on legit medical advice sites, apparently isn't supported by any recent studies. Inflammation, long thought to be health's archenemy, is actually an indicator that things are healing as they should. And ice -- or any other "cryotherapy" -- slows that down. Now, it does numb the pain, of course, which isn't nothing. It's just not doing anything to actually fix your broken body. Multiple studies in the last decade or so (linked here) confirm it.

In fact, icing may slow down blood supply to cells that need it to heal, delaying recovery. So why do we keep doing it? Habit, mostly. There were a few rogue scientific reports in the 1970s that said ice helped, and since we all stopped reading in 1982, because reading is for sports-less nerds, we've taken it as a given since. And we've done it despite the fact that even the doctor who coined the term "RICE" changed his mind about it. But that's exactly what a sports-less nerd would do.

Myth: You Shouldn't Let A Concussion Victim Fall Sleep

Raise your hand if you hit your head too hard as a child and some dumb friend told you that you needed to stay awake so you didn't slip into a coma. Congratulations! Your friends are awful and might have caused you irreparable harm.

"Don't fall asleep, you just had a concussion!" is right up there with "Don't wake a sleepwalker" in terms of first aid advice everyone quotes but doesn't actually understand. In reality, rest and sleep are a body's primary way to heal, even when it comes to traumatic brain injuries like concussions. Depriving someone of those things is not only counterproductive, but can also slow down a person's recovery. Brains, not unlike an overworked administrative assistant who keeps answering the phone with "What the fuck do you want?", need some time off to get their shit together.

As for how this myth persists, part of it is that if someone bangs their head, you do need to watch them for symptoms of a concussion (vomiting, double vision, headache, etc.), and you of course can't do that if they're asleep. In that case, if they seem fine but then go to sleep, it's a good idea to wake them up after a couple of hours and make sure they're still not showing symptoms.

But honestly? If someone bangs their head really hard, it's best to just take them to the doctor anyway, even if they're not showing obvious symptoms. Brain stuff is hard to diagnose and is not to be taken lightly, ever.

Myth: If Someone's Having A Seizure, Put Something In Their Mouth To Bite Down On

Conventional wisdom (and one disastrously handled baseball game) says that if you see someone having a seizure, you're supposed to rush over and wedge your wallet into their mouth to keep them from swallowing their tongue. It's a bit of "common sense" advice that feels almost random, like "If they're choking, blow air into their ass to get the food to pop out the other side."

Yeah, if you see someone having a seizure, please keep the contents of your pockets out of their throat. For starters, it's physically impossible to swallow your tongue. And wedging something somewhere it doesn't belong is never a good idea, and in this particular instance, it will probably break the seizure-haver's mouth.

During certain kinds of seizures, a person will, among other things, clamp their jaw shut involuntarily, and trying to undo that is going to cause a lot more problems than it's going to fix. Not to mention, if you're not using a soft, supple wallet, you'll likely end up paying for someone's dental surgery after it cracks most of their teeth.

You and your stupid good intentions are also probably going to make it difficult for the victim to breathe, what with your wallet blocking their airway. And unless you've taking the time to deep-clean and sterilize your billfold beforehand, you're introducing a whole mess of butt bacteria into the mouth of someone who, let's be real, is already having a pretty rough day.

So what should you do? Nothing, really, except keep an eye on the victim. Most seizures will pass on their own and rarely require any kind of medical intervention. But if it does -- like if the seizure lasts longer than five minutes, or the victim injures him or herself in the process -- call an ambulance. And spend the time waiting trying to convince other bystanders not to shove foreign objects into the victim's mouth.

Myth: You Should Slap Raw Meat On A Black Eye

As a standby of sitcoms, cartoons, and movies, putting a raw steak over a black eye is a time-honored -- and super manly -- way to reduce pain and swelling and kick-start the healing after being punched in the face. After all, nothing proves that you're an alpha male like getting injured and then draping the wound in beef.


Raw meat, regardless of animal or cut, is full to the brim with bacteria, including E. coli, and your eye is basically like a tiny diaper stuffed into your skull, super absorbent. That is a bad combination. Unless, of course, you want to get an absolutely grotesque infection.

So why has everyone from Little House On The Prairie's creepy neighbor Mr. Edwards to Harry Potter's not-as-creepy-but-still-kind-of-creepy-if-you-think-about-it groundskeeper Hagrid felt the need to slap a slab of steak over a shiner? It seems that in the past, people thought meat would draw out water from a wound (it doesn't), thereby reducing swelling (nope). More likely, they just wanted something cold to put on there and didn't have an ice pack.

It is still recommended that you ice a black eye, by the way (the "don't ice it" advice for sprains doesn't apply here, because in this case, swelling makes it hard to see where you're going). Just wrap the ice pack or frozen vegetables in a clean towel and ice the general area, and don't press directly on the wounded part (that hurts for a reason).

Myth: If You're Hyperventilating, Cover Your Mouth With A Paper Bag

If you've watched television at all in the last forever, then you're probably aware that the popular shorthand for a panic attack is hyperventilation, the clinical term for breathing too deep and too fast for your body to keep up. Assuming the show you were watching didn't just let the hero full-on anxiety spiral for 20 minutes, you've also probably noticed that the popular remedy for hyperventilation is breathing into a paper sandwich bag.

5 Common First-Aid Tips That Just Don't Work

Don't do that.

The argument goes that since hyperventilation decreases the carbon dioxide in the lungs, "rebreathing" your exhaled CO2 is a good idea. But that's only if you're 100 percent sure you're hyperventilating. If your shortness of breath is actually an asthma attack, or a heart attack, or emphysema, or a head injury, or literally anything other than actual hyperventilation, you're going to do far more harm than good.

When you're breathing into a paper bag, you're not just increasing your carbon dioxide levels, but also reducing your oxygen -- y'know, that thing you need to survive which is about 1/5th of the air. So if it turns out you're not hyperventilating, then you're depriving your body of oxygen when it needs it most, which is a boring way of saying you're murdering yourself.

And that's not hyperbole, either. At least three people have died after self-diagnosing their heart attacks as panic attacks and asphyxiating themselves with a lunch bag. So instead, try pursed lip breathing. Pucker your lips like you're blowing out a candle, then breathe out slowly. This has the benefit of raising your carbon dioxide levels without the pesky "depriving yourself of life-sustaining oxygen" part.

Eirik Gumeny is a Goddamned medical marvel and the author of the Exponential Apocalypse series. He's also on Twitter.


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