Besides calling 911, experts tell you what to do in 12 life-threatening emergencies when no one’s around to help.
Richard Stennes, MD, was home alone in La Jolla Shores, California, eating a steak, when the phone rang. The 64-year-old gulped down the bite still in his mouth and answered the call. But the hunk of steak was stuck, and he couldn’t talk or breathe. He put his finger down his throat to grab the meat, but he couldn’t reach it. Gagging didn’t help either. So he walked over to the couch and forcefully thrust his abdomen on the hard arm of the couch, sending the meat flying and allowing him to breathe again.
An emergency physician, Dr. Stennes knew that if done right, this would have the same effect as the Heimlich maneuver. If you’re ever in the same situation, quickly find a chair or other piece of furniture or a kitchen counter, says Maurizio Miglietta, MD, chief of trauma at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. Aim to hit the top of the chair or edge of the counter against your upper abdomen, in the soft part below the bony upside-down V of the ribs. Thrust up and inward. If you still can’t breathe after six tries, call 911 from a landline, even if you can’t talk. They’ll find you. Write the word choking somewhere nearby, and leave the line open until help arrives.
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2. HEART ATTACK
If you’re experiencing crushing chest pain with or without pain in your left arm, are short of breath, or have a sense of impending doom, you may be having a heart attack. (Women are more likely to have atypical symptoms like severe fatigue, nausea, heartburn, and profuse sweating.) Call 911 and chew one 325 mg uncoated aspirin, to get it into your bloodstream fast. This will thin your blood, often stopping a heart attack in its tracks. While waiting, lie down so your heart doesn’t have to work as hard, says Sandra Schneider, MD, a spokeswoman for the American College of Emergency Physicians. If you think you might pass out, try forcing yourself to cough deeply. It changes the pressure in your chest and can have the same effect as the thump given in CPR, says Dr. Schneider. “Sometimes it can jolt the heart into a normal rhythm.”
If someone else goes into cardiac arrest, note that the American Heart Association now recommends CPR without the mouth-to-mouth: Call 911, then push hard and fast on the person’s chest until help comes.
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This doesn’t happen only in horror movies. Tornadoes and hurricanes can fling debris for miles, and even recreational hobbies like fishing or archery can be hazardous. Just ask James Bertakis. The 81-year-old Florida man fared better than Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, who was killed in 2006 when a stingray struck him in the heart. Bertakis was impaled when a stingray jumped into his boat and hit him directly in the chest. He didn’t remove the barb but piloted the boat to land and got help.
If you have something stuck in any body part, including your eye, don’t remove the object, says Richard O’Brien, MD, a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians. “The object may be compressing an artery that would otherwise start bleeding like crazy.”
If you’ve been struck by a branch or some other hefty object, try to trim it, breaking off the part that’s protruding from your body, but don’t pull it out.
4. SWIMMING EMERGENCIES
Riptide: Dr. Stennes is either extremely lucky or has a knack for putting his life in danger. In addition to surviving choking, he also saved his own life in a riptide in Acapulco, Mexico.
“I was swimming in the ocean, and all of a sudden a strong current took me away,” he says. “There were no lifeguards, so I was waving to people on the shore, who just waved back at me. I began to think, I’m in a bad situation here. I’m not a great swimmer, and I can’t go against that riptide, so what am I going to do?” He floated for a while, then did exactly what the experts recommend: He swam slowly, parallel to the beach, until he was out of the current.
You know you’re in a riptide when you feel yourself being pulled away from the shoreline, says Dr. Bradley of the Red Cross. “Your natural reaction is to head toward the shore, but it’s very difficult to swim against a riptide.” Luckily, these currents are fairly narrow, so you just have to swim along the shore, in either direction.
Cramps: If you’re in deep water, take a breath, lie on your back, and float. If you’ve got a muscle cramp (they often hit the calves), float facedown, grab your toes, and pull them toward you, stretching your calf until the pain goes away. If it’s a stomach cramp, lie on your back, spread your arms and legs, and float until you can swim back to shore.
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The most common reasons for calls to poison centers? Unintentional or intentional drug overdoses (painkillers, sedatives, and antidepressants are high on the list) and exposure to cleaning products. No matter how little you’ve ingested, call a poison center before you do anything. The national number is 1-800-222-1222.
Don’t make yourself throw up or give yourself ipecac, the vomit-inducing antidote that used to be a staple in first-aid kits, says Alvin C. Bronstein, MD, medical director of the Rocky Mountain Poison & Drug Center in Denver. “Ipecac has never been proven beneficial,” he says. “We rarely use it today. It’s gone the way of the horse and buggy.”
Ipecac can leave you throwing up for hours. Plus, if you ingested something that burned going down and you force yourself to vomit, it will burn on the way back up too. And say you accidentally took a few extra sedatives. If you take ipecac when you’re overly sleepy and your gag reflex isn’t working well, you can turn a manageable overdose into something much worse.
Colorless, odorless carbon monoxide is a deadly poison that kills nearly 500 unsuspecting people a year. Make sure you have a working detector in your home.
If you’ve inhaled something (bleach or ammonia are common culprits), get away from the toxic area. If it’s something that got on your skin, like a cleaning product, wash it off, then call a poison center and follow the specialist’s advice.
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6. SEVERE BLEEDING
You’re gushing blood—and getting scared. Forget about tourniquets, says Dr. Schneider of the American College of Emergency Physicians. Use your hand or a clean cloth, paper towels, a scarf, or any fabric you can grab, and push down on the wound until the bleeding stops. Tourniquets, which every Boy Scout learned how to make back in the day, are now a first-aid no-no. “If you have a cut on your upper leg and you put pressure on it, you’re just closing that vessel. But if you put a tourniquet on, you’re going to close the vessels to the entire leg,” says Dr. Schneider. “You could lose your foot.”
The only time to use a tourniquet, says Charles Pattavina, MD, chief of emergency medicine at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor, Maine, is when you know that everything below the wound is beyond repair (say, the accident has amputated your finger, arm, or leg).
By Pamela F. Gallin, MD
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