- Although not always possible to predict when emergency medical situations will happen, knowing how to respond to them safely and effectively can be critical in saving someone’s life.
- INSIDER spoke with Dr. Angela Jarman, assistant professor of emergency medicine at University of California, Davis, to get expert insight on what to do if you’re a bystander in different emergency situations.
- You can increase a person’s chances of survival during a life-threatening medical event by familiarizing yourself with how to use an AED, administer first aid, perform the Heimlich maneuver, and give life-saving medications like naloxone.
- Above all, the most important thing a bystander should do during most emergency medical events is contact emergency medical services.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
In the case of a medical emergency, it’s easy to assume someone else will step up to the plate and help the person in distress. Unfortunately, this isn’t always what happens – and knowing how to respond to emergencies safely and effectively can be critical in ensuring someone’s survival.
INSIDER spoke with Dr. Angela Jarman, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of California, Davis, to learn some key things all people should know about responding to emergencies.
Of course, the following information should not be considered a substitute for proper certifications, classes, or hands-on training. And no matter what kind of dire medical situation you’re dealing with, it’s wise to contact your local emergency medical services.
Here are some skills worth familiarizing yourself with so you’ll be equipped to take action when emergency medical situations happen.
As simple as it is, knowing how and when to call for emergency medical assistance is incredibly important
Any time you’re responding to an emergency medical situation, it’s important that you call your local emergency medical services (EMS) immediately, said Jarman.
In addition, calling EMS typically does far more than just send paramedics to the scene of the event. For example, Jarman noted that many dispatchers trained to give people instructions over the phone on how to administer CPR, give people life-saving drugs, and handle other emergencies.
And if you are unable to make the call yourself, you should immediately yell out to ensure someone else does.
Properly performing CPR can save someone’s life
CPR (short for cardiopulmonary resuscitation) is a well-known emergency technique that’s used to help someone who has suffered a cardiac arrest, a life-threatening condition is when the heart suddenly stops beating. Unfortunately, cardiac arrest can cause brain damage or even death within minutes if a person doesn’t receive immediate help.
“If [you] see someone collapse on the ground and they’re unresponsive and they don’t have a pulse, you should absolutely start CPR, [because] that may save someone’s life,” Jarman told INSIDER.
Performing hands-on CPR on someone involves manually compressing the chest to pump blood to vital organs even though the heart has stopped, said Jarman.
Contrary to what you’ve seen on TV, effective CPR doesn’t require mouth-to-mouth (rescue breaths) and instead prioritizes consistent, repeated chest compressions. She said that the American Heart Association guidelines for CPR are “CAB” which stands for “circulation (compressions), airway, breathing.”
“If you’re one person and you respond to an unresponsive cardiac arrest, your priority is chest compressions. While you can provide rescue breaths, the most important thing is circulating blood. And the reason is that as you circulate blood, there’s some passive air exchange that happens in the lungs,” she explained.
Still, Jarman said there are some key things every person should know about CPR.
She told INSIDER, “There are guidelines for how to do chest compressions … In terms of rate, it’s 100 to 120 compressions per minute. There are guidelines for depth as well – you want to be compressing at least 2 inches into an adult chest.”
For more information about CPR, you can also take a class or refer to page 10 of The American Heart Association’s CPR guidelines.
Recognizing the signs of a stroke can help someone receive someone life-saving care on time
The tricky part about identifying conditions like a stroke is that symptoms can be subtle and can vary from person to person. Some common, visible signs that someone may be having a stroke include a droopy face on one side, difficulty speaking, trouble seeing, sudden numbness or weakness of the face, and trouble walking.
Per the CDC, referring to the acronym “FAST” (Face, Arms, Speech, and Time) can help you assess whether someone you know might be suffering from a stroke so you can get them the care they need.
The “FAST” test calls you to examine a person’s face for droopiness, ask them to raise both arms so you can see if one is lower than the other, and ask the person to repeat a phrase for you to see if their speech is slurred or slow.
If you suspect someone near you is experiencing a stroke, call for emergency help immediately. This is critical because a person’s survival rate during a stroke oftentimes depends on how quickly they receive medical attention, per the CDC.
Using an AED can potentially help a person’s heart before emergency services have the chance to arrive
An automated external defibrillator (AED) is a machine that applies an electric shock to the heart to bring it back to a normal rhythm. AEDs consist of two wired pads that get placed directly on a person’s bare chest and a portable box that detects the heart’s rhythm.
“An AED is basically a less complex version of what we use during a cardiac arrest in the hospital,” said Jarman.
Notably, you always make sure the person is unresponsive by checking for a lack of pulse before attempting to use an AED on them. And of course, you’ll want to try to contact EMS first.
Fortunately, AEDs are immediately ready-to-use and equipped with voice instructions that tell you exactly what to do.
She continued, “When you have a cardiac arrest, you can either have a shockable rhythm or a non-shockable rhythm. The electric pads in the AED can sense whether you’re dealing with a shockable rhythm or not and if you are it will advise you to give a shock to that person.”
Although you don’t need certification to use an AED, the American Heart Association recommends you seek training to help you feel more confident with using them.
Like fire extinguishers, AEDs are oftentimes found in the majority of public spaces like libraries, movie theaters, and restaurants. And, in some areas, apps like Pulse Point can help you find the AED that is nearest to your location.
The Heimlich maneuver is an effective technique used to stop someone from choking to death
The Heimlich maneuver is a well-recognized method used to dislodge food or other foreign objects that get stuck in a person’s windpipe.
You should call EMS and perform the Heimlich on someone if you notice they are choking and cannot talk. Not being able to speak indicates that their windpipe is likely blocked and that they cannot breathe.
Other signs of choking include the universal distress signal (covering the throat with the hands), turning blue, and gasping for air.
The Heimlich maneuver consists of wrapping your arms around someone from behind and clasping your hands together. Next, you administer multiple upward thrusts toward the person’s belly button until the object comes out of their mouth.
Keep in mind that this approach is only used for adults who are choking. Per the National Health Service, for babies and children less than a year, you should attempt to dislodge the object by supporting them face down and giving them five blows between the shoulder blades using the heel of your hand. If this is not effective, administer chest thrusts.
Likewise, if someone has already gone unconscious from lack of oxygen, you should immediately lie them on their back, and tilt the head to better open their airway. You should then start giving them CPR to keep their blood flowing until EMS help arrives.
In any case, responding to a choking victim in a timely manner is critical. According to the National Institute of Health, one only needs to go about four minutes without oxygen before their brain begins to suffer damage or they die.
Knowing how to respond to someone who is having a severe allergic reaction can prevent death from anaphylaxis
People with severe allergies to foods are at risk of experiencing a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.
Jarman told INSIDER, “People who experience anaphylaxis will often have urticaria (hives) and they may have facial swelling or voice changes. They may be vomiting. And then eventually they often describe [feeling] their throat closing and [having] difficulty breathing. They also may become unconscious due to respiratory failure or shock.”
However, Jarman advises that you should try to call EMS before giving someone a shot from an epinephrine autoinjector as it may not always be the best option for those with heart disease or other injuries.
Jarman told INSIDER, “While epinephrine is a life-saving medicine, it is not without risk. It’s essentially a giant, bolus dose of adrenaline … This stimulates receptors on your heart and in your lungs and it can be harmful for adults and older people who are more likely to have heart disease than children.”
Of course, if you or someone you know has a known anaphylactic allergy and have clear markers for anaphylactic shock (like being rendered unconscious), Jarman said you should absolutely administer the medication.
Generally, administering the drug will depend on which brand you have available to you, though most autoinjectors require you remove a safety cap and firmly press a red- or orange-colored tip into the patient’s outer thigh. But always be sure to read the instructions on the injection you have at hand before administering it. Notably, different injectors require you to wait different amounts of times before removing them from the patient’s thigh.
In addition, after an epinephrine autoinjector is administered, it is recommended that the patient receive a medical evaluation as soon as possible. And if you accidentally prick yourself with the autoinjector, you’ll want to immediately seek medical assistance.
You can possibly save a life by knowing how to help open someone’s airway when their breathing has been compromised
During many life-threatening medical emergencies, people aren’t breathing properly, which means they aren’t getting an adequate amount of oxygen into their lungs. Should this situation arise, you may be able to help by performing a few specific maneuvers that may help increase the flow of oxygen in that person’s body.
One way to go about this is to turn someone on their side, said Jarman. In addition, specific maneuvers like the “head tilt-chin lift” can be beneficial. You can do this by pushing back on the person’s forehead while gently pulling their chin upwards. This can help prevent their tongue and other soft tissues from blocking their airway, per the ACLS Certification Institute.
In many cases, you may be able to stop severe bleeding with the right amount of pressure
Any time someone has a serious cut or another traumatic injury that won’t stop bleeding, they’re at an increased risk for hypovolemic shock. This is a life-threatening condition where the heart is unable to pump enough blood through one’s body.
“Direct pressure is the answer to the vast, majority of wounds,” said Jarman. She said most people can easily generate enough pressure with just one hand or their body weight. This pressure should be applied firmly and continuously to help the bleeding stop.
Also, if you can elevate the wound above the heart (for example, if someone’s arm has been wounded, lift it above their chest, closer to their head) that may be beneficial, but the most important factor in stopping the bleeding is keeping that pressure constant.
Even if you’re able to successfully stop the bleeding, the patient should still seek medical assistance for long-term treatment.
The US government’s Stop the Bleed campaign also provides additional resources for people who are interested in learning more about how to aid injured people, particularly during unexpected traumatic events like mass shootings.
Read More: 4 ways to quickly stop a bloody nose
Familiarizing yourself with basic first aid can prevent the spread of potentially deadly infections
Giving proper first aid to cuts, scrapes, and other wounds can help prevent infection and potentially fatal complications like sepsis.
Per CDC guidelines, always wash your hands with soap and water before attempting to treat your own or somebody else’s wounds. You should also clean all wounds thoroughly of debris with clean water and a saline solution or antibiotic cream if you have access to such.
In addition, individuals should seek immediate medical attention for any infections, including wounds that cause them redness, swelling, shortness of breath, confusion, disorientation, or other unusual symptoms.
Understanding how to care for someone who is experiencing a seizure can prevent them from getting injured or choking
Sometimes it can be alarming to watch someone experience a seizure, especially if the convulsions are violent. But, as a bystander, you should avoid trying to restrain them. Doing so could potentially injure yourself or the person having a seizure.
That said, someone who is experiencing a seizure has a high risk of choking.
“When a person is seizing, they’re generally not breathing, and so lots of times those patients become cyanotic (turn blue). It is important to get someone on their side because if they vomit while they’re lying back, they’re going to aspirate that into their lungs,” said Jarman.
Aspiration is the medical term for accidentally inhaling things, like food or vomit, into the windpipe. Placing someone on their side makes it less likely that they’ll inhale the foreign objects during the seizure.
The CDC also advises that you place a soft object, like a jacket or pillow, under the person’s head, remove any sharp and dangerous objects from the area around them.
As Jarman told INSIDER, “The vast majority of seizures will stop on their own with no intervention.” But you should make a note of how long the seizure lasts so you can later provide that information to medical personnel or the person who is seizing.
Notably, the CDC states that most seizures do not require medical attention. But EMS should be contacted if the person seizing has never experienced seizures before, they have difficulty breathing following the seizure, they experience multiple seizures in a short period of time, the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes, or if the person has injured themselves during the seizure.
You may want to know how to administer naloxone to a person who is experiencing an overdose
Research has found that the drug naloxone can be effective in reversing the effects of opioid overdose so being aware of when and how to administer this drug may be critical in ensuring a person’s survival.
“If you find any person who is unresponsive and you suspect an overdose, I would absolutely say give them [naloxone]” said Jarman. She said it is a fairly safe medication with minimal side effects.
Signs of an opioid overdose include a limp body, shallow breathing, extreme drowsiness, pale skin, slowed heart rate, and unresponsiveness. As always, you should call EMS if you encounter someone who shows any of these signs, regardless of whether you have naloxone on hand or not.
Jarman added that people should be aware that this drug comes in three forms and the most common one is intranasal, meaning it’s a sort of nasal spray that you squeeze into one’s nose.
After giving someone a dose of naloxone, you should follow other life-saving protocols like turning that person on their side to open their airway. And, importantly, monitor the person’s condition until EMS arrives.
It’s important to remember naloxone is not effective against treating overdoses caused by non-opioid substances, like cocaine, methamphetamines, or alcohol. For these types of overdoses, calling EMS and then following the protocol for basic life support is typically the most effective way to respond.