First Aid Myths: Ignore These Summer 'Cures'

Experts share first aid tips while debunking some common home remedies.

From the WebMD Archives

Softball in the eye? Don't reach for a raw steak!

Summer, with its whirl of sports and outdoor activities, can produce an appalling number of minor injuries, but you can make matters worse if you follow wacky, outdated advice and don't know the correct steps to take.

Myth: Put Butter on a Burn

"Ludicrous!" Richard O'Brien, MD, an emergency medicine physician at the Moses Taylor Hospital in Scranton, Pa., tells WebMD. Grandma's tried-and-true remedy of slapping butter on a burn is just adding unclean, foreign proteins.

Second- and third-degree burns -- when the skin is blistering or white and without feeling -- need to be treated by a doctor. First-degree burns -- when the skin is red but feeling is still normal -- can be treated at home.

"You need to cool a minor burn," O'Brien advises. "Run cold water on the burned area for at least 10 minutes; then apply an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment." Put a cloth over that, he says, and then you can apply another cold compress for pain control. A bag of frozen veggies works nicely. Never put ice directly on the skin.

Tip Sheet: What to Keep in Your First Aid Kit

Myth: Throw Your Head Back to Stop a Nosebleed

"Don't put your head between your knees or tip your head back," O'Brien says. The latter is especially bad because you can breathe the blood into your lungs or get it in your stomach and vomit.

"Press the fleshy part of your nose," O'Brien says, "and not the part where your glasses sit -- lower than that -- as if you are trying to stop a bad smell." Now -- and this is the important part -- press firmly for a complete 10 minutes by the clock. "People don't do that, they let up every three seconds to see if it stopped," he says. Ten minutes! O'Brien says there are also medications and little nostril plugs for people who get frequent nosebleeds.

If a nosebleed lasts for more than 15 minutes, occurs following a serious injury, or is accompanied by severe blood loss, you should call your doctor or go to the emergency room.

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Myth: If Something Gets Stuck in Your Flesh, Pulling It Out Is OK

This may be OK, O'Brien says, if the object is small, visible, and near the surface. But this probably does not apply to errant fishhooks. "You can cut the end of those and pull them out, but it's hard to do," he says. "I have trouble sometimes with a local anesthetic and a scalpel. An embedded fish hook may earn you a trip to the emergency department."

If you do remove an object, like a thorn, wash the wound well with soap and water, dry it, and bandage. A puncture wound -- especially a rusty nail -- requires a tetanus shot if you have not had one in the last five years.

Incidentally, the embedded object may be holding in the blood. When in doubt, see your doctor.

Myth: For Cuts and Scrapes, Apply Peroxide and Leave Open to the Air

"I am not a fan of peroxide," O'Brien says. Some authorities even think it can kill the body's cells that are rushing to fend off intruding bacteria and germs trying to enter the wound. O'Brien prefers soap and water -- or just clean water -- to flush out bits of dirt and irrigate the wound. Even hose water will do.

"We go by clean, treat, and protect," he says. Clean a cut or scrape, apply antibiotic ointment, and bandage it. "Some people like to let wounds air, but I find they heal faster if they are protected. More importantly, if they are bandaged, the person, especially a child, will protect them better. You can't imagine how many times people will reinjure the same place! I see it all the time. Bandaging makes it less likely the wound will be reopened."

Any cut that goes beyond the top layer of skin might need stitches. Generally, the sooner stitches are put in, the lower risk of infection.

Myth: If You Get Shin Splints, Running More Will Ease Them

Anyone who has run or hiked too much without conditioning has probably experienced shin pain. "This is really called medial tibial stress syndrome," says Jim Thornton, MA, a certified athletic trainer and head trainer at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. Basically the muscle attached to the shinbone is tearing loose. The inflammation -- or pain -- is a response on the way to healing.

"If you continue to pound the tears," Thornton tells WebMD, "it will not heal. The key is to have it evaluated because it means your muscles are out of balance. If you run again when the pain lets up, dial back the mileage, because shin splints can end up in a stress fracture."

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Myth: If You Twist a Knee or Ankle, Apply Cold Only

If you hurt a joint, what to do depends on the stage of the injury, Thornton says. The RICE acronym can help you remember how to immediately treat an injury. Rest the injured area, ice it for 20 minutes for the first 24 hours (remove for at least 20 to 40 minutes in between), lightly compress it with a bandage, and elevate over the level of the heart.

What about heat? "I don't apply heat if there is swelling. But if the swelling goes on a few weeks, you can try a contrast bath -- heat, cold, heat, cold," Thornton says. "If there is no swelling, heat may be soothing. Sometimes, before a workout, heat can warm up the area, too."

If you cannot stand or walk, you should seek medical attention.

Myth: Put Vinegar Compresses on a Sunburn

Acid on a burn? O'Brien cringes. "You shouldn't get a sunburn," he says. "But if you do, apply cool compresses. This is inflammation. Although I am a little reluctant to give everyone over-the-counter painkillers these days, I think ibuprofen is great for sunburn pain and inflammation." O'Brien says old-fashioned Noxzema also lowers the skin temperature. He's a fan.

Myth: If You Get a Bee Sting, You Must Squeeze Out the Stinger

Never do this! Squeezing the stinger may allow venom still in the sac to get into your system. "Scrape the stinger out with a credit card," O'Brien says. "Even those acrylic nails work, if they are clean." If the person is getting red or having trouble breathing, dial 911. This can be serious or even fatal.

Myth: You Need to Get the Venom Out of a Snakebite as Soon as Possible

Cowboys may put stock in sucking the venom out of a snakebite, but it is a huge no-no. "Do not use suction," O'Brien says. This can introduce more germs and bacteria. Also don't allow the victim to run for help, this speeds the tissue-destroying or nerve-paralyzing venom.

Remove tight clothing and rings from the victim and get to the emergency department immediately. Keep the affected area immobile and, if possible, below the level of the heart. "I don't even recommend tourniquets," O'Brien says. "People don't know how to use these."

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Myth: People May Swallow Their Tongues During a Seizure

It's commonplace in movies. Someone has a seizure and a passerby sticks something in the patient's mouth so they don't swallow their tongue and block their airway. "People can control their own airway," O'Brien says. "Don't stick anything in there." If the person is outside, let him or her roll around on the ground. It's OK.

When a person is having a seizure, don't hold the person down as this can result in injury. Just remove sharp objects -- glasses, furniture etc. -- from around the person to prevent injury.

Myth: If You Get Motion Sickness, You Can Stop It by Staring at a Point on the Horizon

You could try staring at something, O'Brien says. "But when you see someone who is sick, don't they usually have their eyes closed?" Try to get to the most motion-free part of the boat or vehicle and don't drink. You will just vomit up the fluid. If you are prone to motion sickness, take Dramamine. It may make you drowsy, but if you are sick, you don't want to drive anyway.

Myth: Poison Ivy Is Catching

Poison ivy is an allergic reaction to an oil called urushiol, released when the leaves of the poison ivy or poison oak or sumac are brushed or crushed. Usually, nothing happens the first time. The big fun comes on the second exposure. Within 15 minutes, the oil binds to skin proteins. If you can rub it off with alcohol or plenty of cold water, the rash can be avoided. It is not contagious, no matter how icky the rash looks. Scratching the blisters also does not spread it, but while you still have the oil on your hands, you can spread it.

Calamine or Burrows solution can calm the blistery rash. An antihistamine like Benadryl can ease the itching or at the very least, will allow you to sleep through it. A cortisone cream can help soothe the itching as well. In severe cases your doctor may prescribe cortisone medication by mouth.

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Myth: A Cold Steak Can Bring Down a Shiner

Do you want grease and foreign proteins in your injured eye? If so, go along with Grandma and the cold steak. "A bag of frozen vegetables is better," O'Brien says. Any cold compress will bring down a smacked eye, but you will still end up with bruising.

If you are poked in the eye or get grit in the eye, do not rub. Don't even try to remove a contact, if you have one. If getting to the emergency room will take a while, a loose bandage to keep the eye shut may help the pain.

If you get chemicals in your eye, flush with fresh water for 15 minutes. Even what seems to be a minor eye injury can turn serious and may require a trip to the emergency room or doctor.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

Sources

SOURCES: Richard O'Brien, MD, emergency physician, Moses Taylor Hospital, Scranton, Pa.; spokesman, American College of Emergency Physicians. Jim Thornton, MA, head trainer, Clarion University of Pennsylvania, Clarion, Pa. American College of Emergency Physicians.

© 2005 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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