Medical misconceptions that just won't go away

There are a number of misconceptions about what to do in medical emergencies still swirling about by word of mouth, sometimes perpetuated by articles supporting these old wives’ tales.

However, there are some things we should certainly not be doing when faced with a first-aid problem.

Here are some good rules to stick to when facing a medical emergency, including what not to do and some good advice to listen to instead.

Keep butter away from burns
The first thing to do after experiencing a burn is to gently cool the skin. This helps stop extra damage occurring from the burning process. Putting butter or other greasy ointments on a burn may actually make things worse, since the grease will slow the release of heat from the skin.

The best way to release heat and gently cool the skin is with cool water. Ice and ice water are too harsh and may further aggravate already damaged skin.

Using butter to treat burns is an old folk remedy that has been around for centuries. It gained credibility when the Prussian Surgeon General Friedrich Von Esmarch recommended it in his influential 19th Century handbook on battlefield medicine.

However, it reads more like a recipe than an emergency procedure, saying that burns should be “painted over with grease or butter, or powdered with flour, starch or powdered charcoal to alleviate the pain.” The idea was to seal the burn off from the air, keep it clean, prevent infection and help the healing process. The only way butter will make you feel better in a situation like this is slathered on a thick piece of toast.

Read: Petroleum jelly: What it can and can’t do

If you’re cleaning a wound, keep the peroxide away
Hydrogen peroxide has been used as a first aid antiseptic for injured skin since the 1920s. It can still be found in many first-aid kits and medicine cabinets today. It used to be the go-to when cleaning a wound but while it might help sterilise a cut, it could also be doing plenty of damage.

Years of research has been found that the caustic nature of hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol (another commonly used first aid antiseptic) can destroy healthy skins cells around the wound. The surrounding skin needs to be as healthy as possible to heal and knit back together, leaving the smallest scar possible.

The best remedy for a wound of a manageable size is to wash it with antibacterial soap and water, dry it and affix an appropriately sized bandage.

Avoid tipping your head back with a nosebleed
Nosebleeds are a common, minor injury. Sometimes they even show up in the absence of an injury, just to make life that little more difficult.

The traditional nosebleed remedy is another one of the most common medical misconceptions. If you get a nosebleed, don’t tip your head back. This can cause blood to run into your throat which can make you cough or choke. If you swallow a lot of blood, it can also make you vomit.

Try these simple tips to stop a nosebleed instead:

  • hold some tissues or a damp cloth to catch the blood
  • sit up or stand
  • tilt your head forward and pinch your nostrils together just below the bony centre part of your nose. Applying pressure helps stop the blood flow and the nosebleed will usually stop with 10 minutes of steady pressure. Don’t stop applying pressure to keep checking if the bleeding has stopped.

Don’t apply heat to a recently sprained ankle
Sprains and small fractures can range from inconvenience to serious hindrance. How they are treated can have a major influence on how quickly they heal.

Typically, icing is recommended in the first day or two after the injury as ice decreases blood flow to an area, which causes less swelling. Heat, on the other hand, will bring blood flow to an area which can cause more swelling.

Only ice a body part for 10 to 15 minutes at a time, with something in between the ice pack and your skin to protect it.

Long-term icing can be detrimental to the healing process by limiting the amount of muscle repairing cells that can access the site of the injury.

Read: When to see a doctor about joint pain

Leave tongues alone
There’s an old belief that someone could ‘swallow their tongue’ while passed out.

“That’s not what happens” asserts Robb Rehberg, a director of first aid training and program development, “what happens is that the soft tissue in our airway can close off if we’re not responsive.” In the event of an unresponsive individual, Mr Rehberg says the first thing he teaches his students is “how to open the airway very easily by tilting their head and lifting their chin.” By positioning the head in this way, you can prevent the threat of suffocation.

Similarly, it was a long-held belief that someone experiencing a seizure could bite their tongue off, so people were advised to give those in a seizure state a wooden spoon or even a wallet to bite down on.

Mr Rehberg’s advice is to “never put anything in the mouth of someone having a seizure.” The best protocol is to let the seizure pass, then assist with any injuries – putting your hands near the mouth of a seizure victim could be harmful to them and you.

Don’t vomit poison up, talk to professionals
The swallowing of poison is a medical emergency and the most important steps to take are to call emergency services and contact the Poisons Information Centre.

Many think that inducing vomiting is the best response if they, or someone they know, have ingested something poisonous. But there are situations where that’s not the right move. Some substances can cause more damage on the way back up.

Read: Could you save a life? Nine ways to prepare for an emergency

Don’t drink alcohol to cure a cough
Over the course of human history, there have been several remedies or medical treatments that include drinking alcohol.

It was long believed that such substances were stimulants, and, as a result, were recommended for a variety of medical professionals for use in certain situations.

A Johnson’s First Aid Manual from 1909 suggests that a sip of brandy could help “encourage circulation” in the case of a victim who has recently recovered from artificial respiration.

Such usage has declined significantly over time and is no longer recommended.

The biggest takeaway is that when it comes to any medical situation, you should first and foremost defer to the professionals.

You may also find it useful to receive first aid and CPR training so you know what to do in emergency situations you may encounter.

Do you have first-aid training? Have you ever had to use it? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Ellie Baxter