10 Lifesaving Skills Everyone Should Know

There are many dangers that lurk in the world around us; fortunately, basic knowledge, common sense, and not panicking can ensure you come out on top of most emergency situations. Check out the skills below to know how to wisely react if and when you’re ever put to the test. (See also: 6 Items You Might Have Forgotten in Your Emergency Kit)

1. CPR

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) methods have changed a bit over the years, but the three basic CPR actions are to check for unresponsiveness and call 911, begin chest compressions if the victim is not breathing normally, and tilt the victim's head back and give two one-second breaths through the victim’s mouth. The pattern is 30 chest compressions, then two breaths, and continue the pattern until the victim begins to breathe or help arrives.

2. The Heimlich Maneuver

If an adult is choking and cannot breathe, the Heimlich maneuver can dislodge the foreign body responsible for the victim choking. The Heimlich Institute recommends this technique: from behind, wrap your arms around the back of the victim and form a fist below the victim’s ribcage but above his belly button. Grasp your fist with the other hand and press into the victim’s upper abdomen with a quick upper thrust and continue until the foreign object is expelled. Seek training for infant and child Heimlich techniques, as they are less intuitive than the adult method and can do more harm than good if not done correctly.

3. Preventing Hypothermia

Hypothermia is when a body’s core temperature drops to the point where normal muscular and cerebral functions are impaired. People might be suffering from hypothermia if they start to shiver uncontrollably, lose coordination, become drowsy, or notice a slower breathing or heart rate. Treat hypothermia by bringing victims inside out of cold weather, removing any wet clothing, and wrapping them in blankets or a sleeping bag. Give them warm fluids without caffeine or alcohol to help stabilize their temperature.

4. Using an AED

Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) are popping up in schools, malls, and even businesses these days. Proper use of an AED can provide life-saving intervention if someone is experiencing cardiac arrhythmias that lead to cardiac arrest. Proper training is required to use an AED, so contact your local Red Cross to get certified.

5. Controlling Bleeding

Just like ice won’t form on form on a flowing river, blood will not coagulate when flowing freely. Apply pressure to the wound, preferably with sterile gauze, but a towel or T-shirt will work in a pinch. If you can, elevate the wound above the heart.

6. Providing Aspirin for Heart Attacks and Strokes

In addition to regular pain relief, aspirin is recommended by the FDA to help treat mini-strokes and heart attacks. Aspirin’s properties as an anti-inflammatory and a blood thinner help more blood get through the large clots that lead to heart attacks. After calling 911, instruct someone you suspect of having a heart attack or stroke to chew and swallow a standard 325 mg dose of aspirin. Two warnings: check to make sure aspirin won’t interact negatively with other medications, and if you're providing aspirin to a stranger, you may want to check your state's Good Samaritan laws to make sure you can't be held accountable for trying to help save a life.

7. Escape from a Sinking Car

10% of all drowning deaths can be attributed to not being able to escape a submerged car. You only have a second or two to try and open the door before most of the door is below the water level. If that doesn’t work, try to open the window; even if you can’t exit through the window, once enough water has entered the car to equalize the pressure, you will be able to open the door and swim to the water’s surface. The most important skill in this situation is the ability to remain calm.

8. Exit a Burning Building

Try to have an escape plan for any building you enter. Every hotel room, government building, and most office buildings have publicly posted emergency exit maps. If there is a fire, check to see if a door feels hot before opening, and never use an elevator during a fire emergency, as it may get stuck or take you to a floor engulfed by flames. You may have to crawl to avoid smoke inhalation, which is often more deadly than the fire itself.

9. Help With a Severe Allergic Reaction

If someone appears to be having a severe allergic reaction, call 911 immediately, then try and talk to the person, asking them if they’ve ever had that reaction before and if they possibly have an EpiPen (a spring-loaded shot of epinephrine). If the victim has an EpiPen but cannot self-administer, you will need to give the shot; instructions should be printed on the outside. Be prepared to also provide CPR if necessary.

10. Properly React to a Snakebite

If you’re bitten by a snake you think may be venomous, get away from the snake, remain calm, and immobilize the bitten arm or leg to slow the poison from spreading throughout your body. Then call 911, remove any jewelry before swelling starts, and try to position yourself so the bitten extremity is below the heart. Don’t try to use a tourniquet, apply ice, or cut the wound to suck out the poison; these methods don't work and can do more harm than help. Especially do not try to capture the snake, but instead try to remember its size and coloration.

Keep in mind that Red Cross CPR/First Aid/AED training can help you gain knowledge and the confidence to use these skills; the certification also looks great on a resume. Stay safe, and remember to keep your wits about you.

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10 Lifesaving Skills Everyone Should Know

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Guest's picture

The three steps I learned in Army basic training still apply: (1) Stop the bleeding, (2) clear the airway, (3) treat for shock. The latter requires getting the victim lying on their back, wrapping them to retain heat, and giving fluids if they are conscious.

CPR has de-emphasized mouth-to-mouth, as chest compressions will usually cycle enough air. The rhythm of compressions is appropriately the Bee Gee's "Staying Alive". It's worth the effort to take a class and practice on a mannequin - there's a fairly narrow range of pressure between ineffective and breaking ribs.

One instructor's words about tourniquets: you are effectively cutting off the limb to save the victim's life. Of course, that doesn't apply if the limb is already crushed, severed, or torn off.

If a heart attack victim is able to talk about interactions, also ask if they are allergic to aspirin.

Almost all the venomous snakes in North America are pit vipers. Their bites will not kill a healthy adult. Keep the victim calm and lying down to slow the spread of the poison and get them to a hospital for anti-venin. Since you are probably out in the woods, this means carrying them back to the road. Snakes have no interest in biting a human unless they are startled - we are too big to swallow (except for some Florida pythons, and they're not venomous). Pay attention to where you are stepping, and if you see a snake just pause to admire it, and it will go on about its business.

Guest's picture

Please note: there is not a way to determine (without a CT scan) the type of stroke a person might be having. Though they account for a lower percentage of strokes each year than ischemic strokes (that is, the type involving a blood clot), there are also hemorrhagic strokes. Giving aspirin to a person having this type of stroke will be the opposite of helpful, since by thinning the blood the stroke could be made worse. And without a CT, you have no way of knowing what type of stroke they are having.

Guest's picture

Yes Yes Yes!

Do not give someone you suspect is having a stroke aspirin! Like you said, it could be a hemorrhagic stroke in which case you'd just be making it worse! As you said the person needs diagnostic tests done first! That part of the article should be edited.

Aspirin is particularly helpful for Myocardial Infarctions aka Heart Attacks though.

Guest's picture

you don't need special training to use an AED. All the instructions are printed inside it. It also talks you through the steps required. Just stay calm (as you should in all these situations) knowing that help is at hand, and follow the printed and spoken instructions. Don't be afraid to try to save someone's life. Most states have Good Samaritan laws that will protect your well-intentioned efforts. =)

Guest's picture

Sadly, in Canada and the United States only 1 in 10 people are First aid/CPR/AED certified.

Guest's picture

#7 was tried on mythbusters- opening the door or window- near impossible. By the time the pressure equalized, you were without air for some time. Much better to have the glass cracker in you car. It applies focus pressure that other implements don't, and will break the glass for you.

Guest's picture

In a submerged car what you do is remove headrest and use the little metal rod to break window

Guest's picture

Actually there is a new CPR. It is compression CPR only. EMTs have found that it is more important to keep the blood flowing through the system than to pump carbon dioxide into the system.

Guest's picture

Great article. One correction: It is important to note that all AEDs have instructions on them and many will actually talk you through the process of using one. A person does NOT need to be trained before using an AED. By telling people they need training before using an AED, people may assume they are not qualified to help save a life in an emergency situation.

Guest's picture
GuestBob Rowland

Thoughtful public service.

Guest's picture

I haven't learned how to use an AED, but I'm ok on the others.

Guest's picture

Lacking an epipen, giving a victim of an allergic reaction some benadryl (tablet form) can help reduce the severity of it, which might save a life.