Illustrations by Louisa Cannell

The Ultimate First Aid Cheat Sheet

Summer is the season for tiring kids out with everything from biking and hiking to tennis and swimming, but all that fun inevitably brings scrapes, bruises, ticks, and a whole host of mini-injuries. For a refresher on how to deal with the basics, we tapped Dr. Heather Heaton of the Mayo Clinic, an expert in emergency medicine and first-aid. In order to administer most of the recommendations below, you’ll want a fully outfitted first aid kit in both your home and your car. If you can make the time, Heaton also recommends a first aid class—she says that in time-sensitive situations like heart attacks and strokes, basic education can truly save a life. Of course, no matter what the situation, first aid is not an alternative to medical treatment: any time symptoms progress past mild, it’s time to get help from the professionals.


The universal sign for choking is hands clutched to the throat. To help a choking victim, perform abdominal thrusts: stand behind the person with your arms around his or her waist, make a fist with one hand, grasp the fist with the other hand and press hard into the abdomen with a quick, upward thrust. If you are by yourself and choking, call 911 immediately, then proceed with abdominal thrusts: place your fist just above your belly button, grasp your fist with your other hand and bend over a hard surface, like a countertop, and shove your fist in and up.

Dress a wound

After you wash your hands, stop any bleeding by applying gentle pressure using a sterile bandage or clean cloth. Use clean water to rinse the wound. You can use soap and a washcloth to clean the area around the wound, but try to keep soap from direct contact with wound (it can cause irritation). If the wound is dirty despite the rinsing, you can use tweezers cleaned with alcohol to remove particles that are left—but if you can’t get the wound clean, seek professional medical care. There is no need to use hydrogen peroxide or iodine-containing cleansers on the wound; these can irritate the tissue. Apply a thin layer of an antibiotic ointment to help keep the wound moist—it won’t make the wound heal faster, but can help keep the area clear of infection. You can finish off dressing the wound with a bandage, which should be changed at least once or twice a day, or anytime the dressing gets dirty.

Allergic Reactions

Allergic reactions range in severity from mild, like skin irritation, to severe and life-threatening, called anaphylaxis. In severe cases, untreated anaphylaxis can lead to death within a half hour. First, if the inciting agent is known—for example, an animal or lotion—remove it. You can try an antihistamine pill, such as diphenhydramine, to help with the symptoms. If you are with someone having an allergic reaction with signs of anaphylaxis (like hives or flushed skin, facial swelling or swelling of the lips or throat, constriction of the airways leading to wheezing or trouble breathing, nausea or diarrhea, or dizziness), ask the person if he or she is carrying an epinephrine autoinjector, sometimes called an EpiPen or Auvi-Q; if so, ask the person if they need to use the autoinjector and if you should help. Typically, the autoinjector is given by pressing the device against the person’s thigh. Even if the symptoms of anaphylaxis seem to improve after giving the autoinjector, the person should seek immediate medical evaluation, as symptoms could return after the medication wears off.


Drowning is a leading cause of death and injury in children. Beyond swimming pools, drowning can occur in things as simple as buckets of water or the bath tub. Do not leave a child unattended if there is water involved. If someone does appear to be drowning, your first priority is to remove the person from water as quickly as possible. Even strong swimmers can have difficulty removing victims from the water; look for emergency equipment, like a safety ring, for assistance. Once the person is out of the water, look closely for signs of breathing, like breath on your face or chest rise. If he or she is not breathing, begin rescue breathing and have someone call for help. Check for a pulse; if you cannot find a pulse, start chest compressions. Continue the care until trained medical professionals arrive.


Try to keep blisters intact, as the unbroken skin is a barrier to infection. If you need to drain the blister to help with pain, you can use a clean, sharp needle to nick the skin near the edge of blister and let the fluid drain, but leave the overlying skin in place. Make sure you change the dressing daily to help prevent infections.

Insect Bites/Stings

Most insect bites or stings are mild, causing at most a little redness, itching, or stinging around the area. For mild reactions, remove the stinger, wash the area with soap and water, and apply a cool compress to help with the discomfort. You can use topical, over-the-counter products to help with both the pain and itching.

Asthma Attacks

Asthma attacks are unsettling for both the person with the symptoms and for those watching. If the person seems to worsen, develop more difficulty breathing, or become less responsive, call 911 or medical assistance immediately. If the person has an inhaler, help them administer 4-6 puffs while waiting for medical personnel to arrive.

Bloody Nose

Sit upright, lean forward, and pinch your nostrils shut with your thumb and index finger, holding for 5-10 minutes. Don’t pick or blow your nose for several hours to help decrease the risk of rebleeding. If your nose does start bleeding again, gently blow your nose to remove the blood clots, then spray both sides with a decongestant nasal spray containing oxymetazoline. Pinch your nose again for 10 minutes—if you are still unsuccessful, seek medical attention.


Use cool, running water, or a damp, clean cloth to help with the pain. The burned area might swell, so remove rings or other tight items that could be potentially constricting. Leave small blisters intact. Make sure you seek medical care if the blisters are large, the burned area covers a large part of the body, you notice any signs of infection, like oozing from the wound, or for any other concerns.


You can treat very mild frostbite with first aid, but you should seek medical attention for anything beyond frostnip. First, protect yourself from further exposure to the cold and remove wet clothing; if there is any chance the affected areas will freeze again, don’t warm them. To warm frostbitten areas, soak the area in warm water (99-108 F) for 15-30 minutes. Don’t use stoves, heat lamps, heating pads or anything that produces direct heat, as those devices can cause burns. If skin turns red and tingles or burns as it warms, that means normal blood flow is returning.

Fainting/Passing Out

Fainting can result from several situations, ranging from mild to dangerous and sometimes deadly. If someone faints, place him or her on her back and, if possible, raise the person’s legs about a foot above the level of the heart. Don’t let the person stand up too quickly—they might faint again. If the person doesn’t regain consciousness within 1 minute, call 911. Check the person’s airway to make sure it isn’t blocked and check him or her for signs of circulation (breathing, coughing, movement); if absent, call 911 and start CPR.


Most tick bites are mild—to remove the tick carefully, use tweezers to grasp the tick near its head and pull it out gently, trying not to crush it. It is not recommended to use petroleum jelly, rubbing alcohol, or a hot match. Wash your hands and the area around the tick bite with soap and water. Make sure you let your doctor know if you develop a rash around the bite, develop flu-like symptoms, you think the bite is infected, or if you are unable to remove the whole tick.

Heart Attack & Stroke

The symptoms of a heart attack can be very specific—like a pressure or full feeling in the chest—to vague, like light-headedness or nausea. If you suspect you or someone you are with is having a heart attack, call 911. If you don’t have access to ambulance services, have a neighbor or friend drive you to the nearest hospital. Chew and swallow an Aspirin (unless you are allergic to Aspirin) or have been told by your doctor to never take Aspirin. Take nitroglycerin if it has been prescribed to you, but do not take someone else’s. Start CPR if the person is unconscious, and locate an automatic external defibrillator (AED) if possible. (If your office/community center doesn’t have one, the Red Cross offers several approved models, plus support for training and education.)

If you are concerned that you or someone you are with is having a stroke, seek immediate medical attention fast—every minute counts. Signs of a stroke can include a facial droop, arm or leg weakness, a severe, quick onset headache, blurry vision or loss of vision particularly in one eye, and dizziness.

First Aid Kit: What You’ll Need

More Emergency Preparedness

Jess Weinstein actually set out to create his comprehensive emergency preparedness kit even before “The Really Big One,” Kathryn Schulz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning article on the earthquake and tsunami threats to the Pacific Northwest, was published in The New Yorker. A long-time Pacific Northwest resident and self-proclaimed gear-head, he was in a unique position to create what’s now called the Jetpack Bag. Inside each bag, you’ll find enough supplies to survive 72 hours of emergency—supplies include everything from critical survival tools (food, flashlights, knives, and a first aid kit) to items designed for comfort (toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, and playing cards). Incidentally, Weinstein’s website offers some great resources about which emergencies your area might be vulnerable to, and what you should have on hand for each situation. Below, one of his they-thought-of-everything bags, plus a few other great (and design-approved) first aid kits for your home, office, and car.