Home sweet home. It’s our go-to place for comfort, security and refuge. But it’s also a place where accidents can happen. Cleaning products, medication, electricity—even food and water—cause more unintentional injuries than you may realize. An astounding 31 million people are treated in hospital emergency departments every year following an unintentional injury. And according to the National Safety Council (NSC), approximately 89,000 deaths from unintentional-injury occurred in 2012.

In the event of an accident or medical emergency, proper and early intervention can save a life and minimize the extent of lasting damage. The following list looks at some of the most common emergencies, with advice from experts about how to respond:

1. Unresponsiveness is always an emergency. Call 9-1-1 immediately.

Inhaling or ingesting toxic substances, falling, getting shocked with electricity, and choking can cause lack of consciousness. Phone for help right away. “Regardless of the cause of the accident, stay calm, speak clearly, and remain on the phone until the dispatcher tells you to hang up,” advises Barbara Caracci, the director of program development and training at the NSC’s first aid programs division. “Many callers panic and disconnect the call before the dispatcher is finished giving directions.”

2. Make it easy for the ambulance crew to find you and clear a path to the patient.

Turn on your porch light and open the front door to make your house more obvious to the ambulance driver. If possible, have someone else wait outside to flag down the emergency vehicle. Move furniture or plants that could be in the way of first responders and put pets in another room.

3. Never move the victim of a fall.

The CDC reports that approximately 27,000 deaths are caused by falls every year. “Cover the person with a blanket to prevent loss of body heat, and if there is bleeding, use a clean cloth to apply direct pressure on the source of the bleeding, but leave the person exactly as you found him,” Caracci warns. “There may be a spinal cord or neck injury that you can’t see and is impossible to detect without an X-ray. Even putting a pillow under his head is a mistake.” If the person is conscious, keep him warm and comfortable until help arrives. Speaking in a calm, reassuring voice can help prevent panic.

4. If you suspect poisoning, call Poison Control by dialing 1-800-222-1222. Do not induce vomiting unless instructed to do so.

Poisons can be swallowed (medication or toxic substances) or inhaled (toxic fumes), but for the past two decades, overdoses from over-the-counter and prescription drugs have been steadily increasing. The CDC recently reported that deaths from drug overdose were the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States. Among people 25 to 64 years old, drug overdoses killed more people than car accidents.

If you suspect a drug overdose and the victim is unconscious but breathing, put him in the recovery position as you wait for paramedics. “Gently roll the person on to his left side which helps lessen the chance of choking if he vomits. Vomiting could lead to aspiration and make matters worse,” says Caracci.

Toxic fumes can be emitted from furnaces (carbon monoxide), cars (gasoline) and cleaning products (ammonia and oven cleaner, for example). Carbon monoxide, CO is a colorless, odorless gas that is omitted from fuel-burning devices. If not properly vented, CO can reach dangerous concentrations. The best way to prevent a problem is to have fuel-burning appliances serviced regularly and to install CO detectors throughout your home.

Other fumes can be harmful, too. If you detect a strong odor and suspect poisoning by inhalation, take the victim outside or open the windows and doors to ventilate the area. Remove any clothing that is saturated with the toxic substance and keep your loved one comfortable until help shows up.

5. If there is no circulation (lack of pulse in the wrist or neck) and the person isn’t breathing, start chest compressions.

If you are not trained in CPR or feel rusty, a 9-1-1 operator can lead you through hands-only CPR—basically, uninterrupted chest compressions of about 100 a minute that you will continue until paramedics arrive. “It’s possible to resuscitate a person without administering rescue breaths,” Caracci explains. To correctly perform chest compressions, follow these tips:

  • Find the center of the chest. This is the notch along the breastbone located between the nipples.
  • Place the heel of one hand down on this spot and put the other hand on top of it. You might want to interlock your fingers to ensure that you don't put pressure on the chest walls.
  • Push down hard and fast. Aim for at least 100 beats per minute. If you're not sure how fast that is, try pushing in rhythm to that old Bee Gees classic "Staying Alive."
  • Push deep. Your goal should be to push the chest in at least two inches deep.
  • Try to get someone to help you keep it up. After just a few minutes, you may feel tired and have a hard time keeping up the rhythm. If possible, take turns with another bystander, but as you switch try to maintain 100 plus beat per minute to avoid any interruption in blood flow.

6. If a person is choking, administer abdominal thrusts (formerly known as the Heimlich maneuver) and call 9-1-1.

Acting fast is essential when a person can’t breath because her airway is obstructed. Choking can lead to death by suffocation in less than three minutes. Adults often make gestures to help you understand their problem, but that's not always true for children: “[Adults will] grasp their necks with their hands or flail their arms, but children don’t know to do this, so if you suspect choking, act quickly by administering forceful abdominal thrusts to dislodge the obstruction,” explains Caracci. Follow these steps:

  • Stand behind the choking person and put one of your legs between the victim's legs to stabilize yourself. (If the victim passes out, this position prevents you from falling with them or onto them.)
  • Reach around the victim’s waist with both of your arms and find the person’s navel.
  • Put a fisted hand directly above the navel.
  • With the other hand, thrust forcefully inward and upward into the abdomen with quick, hard jerks toward the ears.
  • If the object flies out and breathing resumes, don’t stop first responders from coming. “Paramedics can check the victim to be sure you didn’t cause harm with the thrusts,” she says. “It’s not uncommon to break a rib or even puncture a lung in the heat of the moment.”

7. Use running water, not ice, for first or second degree burns.

Fires burn, but so do chemicals, electricity, and heat from the sun. The size of the affected area and the depth of the burn determine whether it’s a first, second, or third degree burn. Treatment differs depending on the cause.

According to Marc Leavey, MD, an internal medicine physician in Lutherville, Maryland, first or second degree burns can usually be treated at home but a third degree burn is an emergency. “A third degree burn looks white or charred. There may be little or no pain because the nerves in the skin have been destroyed, but immediate medical attention is required so call 9-1-1,” he says.

Less serious burns can be treated with running water. “Ice is not recommended because it’s too cold and could cause a tissue injury,” Caracci explains. “Keep cool water running on the burned surface until the pain stops and monitor the area over the next few days. If blisters form, keep them intact and see a doctor if an infection develops.”

8. Never touch a person who is attached to a wire and shaking. It will transfer the current to you.

Cords and outlets can cause electrical burns, which occur when a person is exposed to an electrical current. Forgetting to switch off power supplies before making home repairs or installations—or dropping a plugged-in appliance into water—is the cause of many injuries. Although electrical burns look minor, they can cause extensive internal damage to the heart, muscles or brain. Medical care is required to assess and treat the internal damage.

Turn off the power supply from the circuit breaker, return to the victim, and stay calm and reassuring until help arrives.

9. Call 9-1-1 if there is pain in the eyes or a change in vision from accidents involving toxic substances.

Chemicals in common household products such as bleach, ammonia, and drain and oven cleaners can burn the skin and eyes and cause plenty of damage that isn’t visible. “First responders have toxic-specific substances to treat burns, but in the meantime, flush the area with plenty of cool, running water,” Caracci advises. “If just one eye is affected, be very careful not to contaminate the other eye. Turn the victim’s head so excess water flows into the sink—not into the other eye—and keep flushing with water until help arrives.”

10. If a person is in shock, elevate the legs so the feet are a foot higher than the head.

Burns, blood loss, and head trauma can trigger shock, which occurs when insufficient amounts of blood and oxygen are circulated to the organs. Suspect shock if the pupils dilate, the skin is cool and clammy or very pale, and breathing becomes rapid and shallow. Shock can permanently damage organs and cause death. Call 9 -1-1 and have the person who is in shock lie on the floor with legs elevated, if possible. Do not offer food or drink. Vomiting can also be a consequence of shock so be on guard. If breathing stops, begin chest compressions.

Ann Matturro Gault is a New Jersey-based writer and editor. Her youngest child received painful second degree burns—with blisters—after microwaving gummy bears when she was 6 years old.

This article was reviewed by Marc I. Leavey, MD, internal medicine doctor associated with Mercy Medical Center and in private practice at Lutherville Personal Physicians in Lutherville, MD.


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