Butter on burns? Time to retire these first aid myths

Tried-but-not-true first aid strategies that your mom may have sworn by, but just don't have science behind them.

Galadriel Watson February 18, 2021
first aid myths

Your grandma's advice for healing might not always be best. Getty

We have all heard them. Words of wisdom handed down through the generations, or maybe simply tips from the internet that sound like they could work. But that advice to pee on a jellyfish sting to make it feel better? Not true. Breathing in a paper bag to calm down? In some situations, this could be dangerous. And putting your head between your knees when you feel faint? Well, it could cause you to lose consciousness, fall and hit your head.

Surprised? Here are some other tried-but-not-true first aid strategies that your mother may have sworn by, but just don’t have science behind them.

Leave a cut uncovered
It was once thought that leaving a minor cut open to the air would give it needed room to breathe and dry out. In fact, skin cells need moisture, and leaving a wound uncovered increases the likelihood you’re harming new surface cells, which can slow the healing process. Moisture also protects nerve endings, so the cut may hurt more if it’s uncovered. As a bonus, a bandage keeps out dirt and protects the area from further injury.

And have you ever found it fascinating to put hydrogen peroxide on a cut and watch it bubble? While the fizzing is a sign that the bacteria is being cleaned out of the wound, it — along with alcohol and iodine — can also damage tissue and prolong healing. Plain water and a mild soap are a better choice.

To learn what steps you should take, click here (also applicable to adults). Get medical help if the cut seems serious, is due to an animal or human bite, or comes from a dirty or rusty object. Also do so if the symptoms get worse or the cut won’t heal.

Butter is better on burns
Wrong again. Butter and other greasy substances hold in heat and keep the burn burning, making it more severe. For burns that are minor enough to treat at home (such as first-degree burns, which are mild and feel a bit like a sunburn), think “cool.” Rinse the area with cool water until the pain stops, likely for 15 to 30 minutes, or apply a cool compress. Don’t use ice or really cold water — both can damage skin tissue. To learn other tips on taking care of minor burns, click here.

According to the Canadian Skin Patient Alliance, second degree burns require medical attention, are more painful than first-degree burns and often cause blistering and open sores on the skin. Third- and fourth-degree burns are an emergency and require a trip to the hospital.

Nosebleed? Tilt your head back 
It makes sense. After all, if you don’t want blood dripping out your nose, lean back so gravity can help stop it. Unfortunately, this also means the blood will drip down your throat and into your stomach, causing irritation, nausea, diarrhea or vomiting. The smarter move is to tip your head slightly forward and pinch the soft part of your nose for at least five minutes. You can also place a cold compress on the bridge of your nose or plug the affected nostril with gauze.

Get medical help if the nosebleed seems to start farther back in the nose and you bleed from both nostrils, if you can’t stop the bleeding after about 20 minutes, or if it happens due to a fall or a punch in the face, especially if your nose might be broken. Frequent nosebleeds also warrant a visit to the doctor.

Heat a sprain 
While a heating pad may feel good on that puffy, aching twisted ankle, it’s not aiding your recovery. Heat attracts blood flow to the area, so if you have an injury that involves swelling, warmth can cause more swelling. Ice, on the other hand, reduces blood flow and puffiness.

The standard recommendation is to follow RICE, according to HealthLinkBC: Rest (give the sprain time to heal), Ice (apply something cold, periodically, for up to 72 hours or until the swelling goes down), Compression (reduce swelling with a tensor bandage) and Elevation (raise your ankle above your heart).

If you are really loving the heat, wait until after the swelling subsides. Warmth can relax the area and make it more comfortable to walk. And if the sprain seems severe or symptoms get worse, visit a doctor.

Heimlich manoeuver for choking
When someone is choking, your first instinct may be to wrap your arms around the person to start the Heimlich manoeuver. While the goal is to force air out of the body and push the stuck object out, sudden manual pressure on the upper abdomen has hazards, such as breaking ribs or rupturing the person’s liver or spleen. It should only be used when the person’s airway is completely blocked: i.e., they can’t breathe, talk or cough, and are turning purple or blue.

You also may feel an urge to stick your finger in the person’s mouth to move the blockage, but if you can’t see the object, lodge it further. Only sweep your finger through the mouth if you can see the object and easily remove it. If this isn’t the case, let the person continue to cough to try to get the object out themselves.

For babies who are choking (can’t breathe, cough or make a sound), HealthLinkBC outlines a number of steps you can take to free the object. If you’re choking while alone, the website advises that you use your fists to do thrusts on yourself, or lean over the back of a chair and press hard to pop out the object causing the blockage. Call 9-1-1 as soon as possible if none of the above techniques are working.

Vomit poison
Have you ever heard the one about drinking milk after consuming poison? Contrary to what some might think, milk is not an antidote for poisons, and it doesn’t protect the stomach. Neither does burned toast, raw eggs or mustard. Parents used to be told to keep a bottle of ipecac — a syrup that induces vomiting — on hand in case their child ingested a toxic substance. This is not the case anymore.

First of all, since vomiting doesn’t remove all the stomach contents, some of the poison will remain. And if the substance is something like toilet bowl cleaner, which can cause a chemical burn on the way down, it can burn on the way up too.

Also, ipecac and similar treatments could reduce the effectiveness of later treatments that medical personnel may administer, like activated charcoal, which prevents toxins from being absorbed by the gut. The best plan of action is to give the person water to drink and call a poison centre for further advice. If the person is unconscious, convulsing or having a hard time swallowing or breathing, call 9-1-1.

Put a spoon in the mouth of someone having a seizure
Let’s get one thing straight: a tongue is firmly attached — there’s no risk of swallowing it. So there’s no need to put a spoon in the mouth of someone having a seizure. Not to mention that fact that it could cause the person to choke or could break the person’s teeth or jaw. There’s also no need to hold them down. Just make sure the surrounding area is safe by removing hard or sharp objects, and stay calm. Get medical help if the seizure seems out of the ordinary: for example, if this is the person’s first seizure, if it lasts unusually long, if the person doesn’t recover well when it ends or if it takes place in water.

Don’t let a person with a concussion sleep
You may have heard that when someone has a head injury or a concussion, they should be kept awake, or be woken up every few hours. In fact, rest is important to aid recovery from a mild head injury. According to Healthline, sleep is fine if you can carry on a conversation and walk without difficulty, and if your pupils aren’t dilated — if any of these apply, or symptoms are getting worse, you need to see a doctor.

Mouth-to-mouth helps a heart attack victim
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) cycles between two actions: chest compressions, which involve repetitively pushing on the patient’s chest, and rescue breaths, which involve placing your mouth over theirs to pump oxygen into their body. But both aren’t always necessary to help someone who is experiencing a heart attack. In fact, chest compressions alone will help the majority of heart attack victims. By doing so, you’ll be helping their heart circulate the oxygen already in their body.

That’s not to say that mouth-to-mouth is not valuable. If you’ve been trained to do rescue breathing, and can do so safely, it can be beneficial, especially if the person doesn’t have oxygen left in their body — for example, if they have nearly drowned. Either way, call for medical help and continue either method you until the professionals arrive. Look up the Heart & Stroke Foundation for a helpful guide to “hands-only CPR.”

Galadriel Watson is a freelance writer, children’s book author and comics artist. 

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