Why do you need a first aid kit?
If you're like most people, you may even already have a first aid kit…somewhere. Or… you have a partial kit. You've used the band-aids and maybe the gauze and tape. But you remember seeing a small red box with a tube of something.
So, why a first aid kit.
First aid kits provide critical solutions to very specific problems. The more we understand the types of problems, the better we are able to address them with the available solutions that a first aid kit provides.
Bottom line, you need a first aid kit!
Even more, you need an accessible kit that you understand how to use. In case of an emergency, it is really your first line of defense. Granted, most of the time, you'll be using it for bee stings and scraped knees. In the event, however, that a serious wound or other life-threatening event happens, you'll be thankful that you have and know how to stop an accident from becoming a tragedy.
What should you pay for a First Aid kit?
First of all, you need to understand that most first aid kits, in the market, are somewhat lame. They usually include some rather cheap and ineffective products that are stuffed in a bag or box in order to keep the price to a minimal, yet look good. Unfortunately, that seems to be the common situation for many tactical gear components. That is, flood the market with cheap products, based on low prices, to make a profit. Unfortunately, we often play a part in this problem.
The goal should be to provide quality products that meet specific needs regardless of price.
Let me relate a story. Recently, a young grade school teacher in Texas, rejected her doctor's advice for flu medication because she felt the $116 co-pay was too expensive. Things only got worse, and unfortunately, she died shortly thereafter, leaving behind a husband and two young children.
Sadly, as much as we need to be careful in managing our finances, we also need to recognize that certain things are priceless.
I view all thing related to protecting myself and my family as worth whatever the cost may be. Personally, I do not put too much weight in price, since I can't place too high a dollar value on the first aid and tactical gear used for protecting my life and the lives of my loved ones. If necessary, I'm prepared to make whatever tradeoffs are necessary to obtain the best quality gear to protect my family.
Where should you keep your First Aid kit?
In photography, your best camera is the one that's with you. First Aid kits should be viewed the same. If it's not available when you need it, it doesn't matter how extensive or complete it is. Many leave their kits at home, but that doesn't work when you're out on the road. So, it depends on how many kits you have.
If you only have one kit, keep it in your car. Theoretically, your auto is always with you whether you are at home, work, or out in the field. If you have more than one car, keep one in each vehicle. After you have your vehicles covered, keep one at home. Finally, if you're backpacking or camping, keep one in your backpack, or with your camping gear.
Understandably, you may have to have more than one kit. That's the price of being prepared. Again, the greatest kit in the world, that's unavailable, is worthless.
What are the most common First Aid injuries?
Here is a list of the most common injuries to which a First Aid kit can address:
- Bites and stings – Insect, snake, and animal bites
- Bleeding – cuts, scrapes, and nosebleeds
- Breathing – choking, obstructed airway, injury, and drowning
- Burns and Sunburns
- Diarrhea and Vomiting
- Head Trauma and brain injury
- Heart Attack
- Heat illness – heat exhaustion and heat stroke
- Poison Oak and Ivy
- Spinal and Neck Injuries
- Strains – back and muscle
- Vomiting – food poisoning, and head or abdominal trauma
This alphabetical listing covers medical issues that range from life-threatening, such as heart attack, to irritating, such as blisters. Although there certainly exist other medical issues, it does cover a range of conditions for which you should be prepared. Additionally, you should recognize that outdoor activities will increase the possibility of injuries, for example, due to lightning, poison oak and ivy, heat illnesses and hypothermia. Finally, your inaccessibility to medical assistance is yet another factor that will increase your need to be prepared to provide medical assistance.
What do you include in a first aid kit?
- A water-resistant container, plus plastic pill bottles, and bags.
- Personal Items – emergency and medical information, extra prescriptions, and First Aid book.
- Antibiotics and Antiseptic – Bactine and Neosporin creams, alcohol pads, povidone iodine prep pads, and antiseptic towelettes.
- Ointments – Aloe vera for burns, vaseline for minor cuts and Cortisone for bites and rashes
- Pain relievers – aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin), and acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Over the Counter medications – antacids for stomach aches (Pepcid AC), antihistamines for allergies (diphenhydramine or Benadryl), and Loperamide (Imodium) for diarrhea. Antibiotics and prescribed pain relievers if possible.
- Bandages and Wraps – including blister pads, steri-strips, QuickClot gauze, Israeli Bandage, instant cold compresses, swat-t tourniquet, and SAM Splint.
- Medical tools – trauma shears, blunt tip scissors, tweezers, thermometer, CPR mask, blood pressure monitor, wound irrigation, and nitrile gloves.
Unfortunately, most first aid kits include only a portion of the items described above. But, before we get into how to build a viable first aid kit, let's look at each of the eight categories above.
There are a number of features that need to be evaluated with respect to the First Aid kit's container. It needs to be waterproof, or at least water resistant. (If you were to develop a kit for boating or kayaking, you will have to insist on a waterproof, and usually crushproof case – otherwise, water resistant will probably suffice.) It also needs to somewhat crush proof, although that is a nice to have a feature that often conflicts with the ease of portability. Third, it needs to be portable and depending on where it's stored, for example, backpacking, portability will the trump crush proof requirements. Finally, it needs to facilitate the accessibility of the supplies themselves. In other words, it needs to separate wound care from medications etc. and make it easy to grab the elements you need, as quickly and efficiently as possible.
So, what're the best containers? I actually reviewed and purchased a number of options, and present them below:
- First Aid Kit Hard Case – This is actually not a bad option. The case is water resistant, meaning that if water dripped on it, it wouldn't cause any moisture damage. It is not waterproof, and if submerged would certainly allow for the entire contents to be saturated. This may be a good way to start a first aid kit, but the available room for add on's is somewhat limited. All in all, not a bad option. It would be limiting, and obviously too big with some uses, such as backpacking.
- Blackhawk Emergency Medic Roll Medical Pack – There are a number of advocates of the Blackhawk Medic Roll as a First Aid bag. The construction is top quality, with reasonable water resistance, good portability, and great accessibility. Crushproof it's not, nor is it waterproof but those are the tradeoffs. The Medic Roll opens to 15 accessible compartments with a large compartment for tools and larger items. Although many like the Blackhawk, I found that the compartments are extremely tight, and don't allow for enough supplies. Additionally, when rolled up, most of the bulk is due to the Blackhawk itself vs. the supplies. There are a number of YouTube videos on using the Blackhawk as well as some alternatives, but generally, I just find this approach too limiting.
- Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Series Backpacker Medic Kit – The third option, the Adventure Medic Kit is actually not a bad option for a number of reasons. Again, we're talking about water resistance and portability vs. crush proof but the size, included components and room for expansion are really optimal. It also includes the Guide to Wilderness Medicine which is actually a surprisingly helpful First Aid book. Although you will still have to supplement this kit, it actually has a good selection of needed and quality supplies. The Adventure opens with five subcompartments:
- Wound care, burn and blister,
- Stop bleeding fast,
- Instruments, and
- Cuts and scrapes.
Some listing of your medical contact numbers, allergies you may have, and medications might be helpful in an emergency. Of course, most will opt for using some SmartPhone record, but an occasional hard copy may not be a bad idea.
It's also a good idea to stock your kit with some of the medications you are prescribed. When you're on the road and run out, or forget, you'll have some medications that may tide you over. You might want to check out the pill bottles that Amazon offers or grab some small plastic bags to meet your needs.
Antiseptics, Anesthetics, and Antibiotics
Here, we're concerned with infections and skin and wound treatments.
- Antiseptics, such as povidone iodine (for wound prep) and alcohol (for cleaning tools), are good for small cuts, cleaning instruments, and swabbing the skin before removing a splinter. They won't help with pain, itching, existing infections or burns and can dry out the skin, so use sparingly.
- Anesthetics, such as Bactine, is good for bug bites, rashes, and pain from mild burns, sunburn and small wounds. It helps prevent skin infection and, like hydrogen peroxide doesn't sting.
- Antibiotics such as Neosporin and Bacitracin are good for small cuts and scrapes but won't help with pain and itching, or burns. Although both are effective, Neosporin can treat more types of bacteria than Bacitracin, and can also kill existing bacteria.
Your first aid kit should contain alcohol swabs for cleaning tools, Povidone Iodine for wound prepping, Bactine or Hydrocortisone for rashes, bites, and allergies, and Neosporin or Bacitracin for wounds. Although both are effective, Neosporin can treat more types of bacteria than Bacitracin, and can also kill existing bacteria.
Different ointments are used for different conditions as follows:
- First degree burns should be treated with Aloe Vera,
- while second and third-degree burns may need an antibacterial ointment such as Neosporin in addition to Aloe Vera.
- Vaseline can be used for minor cuts, scrapes, and burns but does not provide any pain relief or antibiotic protections. It should be used sparingly and on minor issues only.
- Finally, Cortisone may be used for bug bites, rashes, and conditions such as poison oak and ivy.
- Be careful, however, there are other steps that need to be addressed before applying something like Cortizone in a poison oak or ivy situation. Essentially, it's critical that you understand the skills of First Aid before you begin to remedy any medical condition.
- Because of the nature of skin rashes, poison oak and ivy situations, it may be wise to use a spray application of Cortizone.
The different pain relievers address different situations as follows:
- Aspirin is used to reduce fever and relieve mild to moderate pain from conditions such as muscle aches, toothaches, common colds, and headaches. Aspirin is also a blood thinner.
- Tylenol (acetaminophen) vs. Advil, Motrin, and Duexis (ibuprofen).
- Tylenol is better for headaches and arthritis. Taking too much at once can damage your liver. Yet the side effects are minimal. As an exception, Tylenol does not contain a blood thinner.
- Advil and Motrin are better for fever, menstrual cramps, muscle soreness and toothaches, but prolonged use can lead to kidney damage, heart attack, and stroke. Additionally, there are side effects that include severe stomach bleeding, heartburn, GI upset, and constipation. Ibuprofen contains blood thinning agents.
- Aleve is similar to the Ibuprofens but is more long-acting.
- Your first aid kit should include all three types of pain medication. Additionally, you may want to include a prescribed pain reliever if available to you.
Over the counter and prescription medications
There are a number of over the counter, and prescriptions medications that should be included in your first aid kit, such as:
- Antacids, Histamine, and Omeprazole –
- Antacids like Tums, neutralize excess stomach to relieve heartburn, sour stomach, acid indigestion, and stomach upset. Antacids work the quickest to relieve heartburn, and side effects may include constipation, diarrhea, and even kidney stones.
- Histamine-2 blockers, like Pepcid AC, Tagamet, and Zantac are for the relief of heartburn, acid indigestion, and even stomach ulcers.
- Omeprazole, like Prilosec, is often used when antacids or Histamine-2 fail. Prilosec actually blocks the secretion of acid from the stomach. Although they generally have few side effects, they do interact with common drugs such as warfarin and some heart medications and antibiotics so they should be used with caution.
- Antihistamines –
- Antihistamines can be divided into first and second generation agents.
- First generations antihistamines include Benadryl (diphenhydramine) and Chlor-Trimeton (chlorpheniramine) and may have a number of drawbacks, including side effects of drowsiness as well as difficulty urinating and constipation. The newer generation is less likely to cause these side effects.
- Second generation antihistamines include such medicines as Allegra (fexofenadine), and Claritin (loratadine).
- In addition to treating congestion, rashes, and itching, antihistamines are used to treat motion sickness, insomnia, and anxiety.
- You may want to stay with a second generation antihistamine.
- Antihistamines can be divided into first and second generation agents.
- Loperamide (Imodium) –
- Severe diarrhea, which can result from infected water, especially when traveling or backpacking can be a life-threatening condition leading to dehydration and needs to be treated. Imodium, in addition to a bland diet and staying hydrated, is generally the recommended treatment.
- If possible, prescription Antibiotics are a nice addition to any first aid kit and can help, for example, mitigate a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) before medical treatment can be obtained.
Bandages and wraps
Wound injuries can range from minor cuts and scrapes to serious gashes and obviously require different treatments and use different medical supplies.
- Bandaids, gauze, pads, and tapes are the most common wound medical supplies and are available in different sizes in virtually all medical kits. You may limit your kit to two or three bandaid sizes, a roll of gauze, some 2×2 and 2×4 wound pads (sterile) and two of the four types of tapes.
- 3M Medical Transpore Tape – this tape sticks to anything and is both waterproof, breathable and easy to tear. IT's useful for securing gauze in place and securing SAM splints.It does leave a sticky residue around the edges and can hurt sensitive skin when removed.
- 3M Nexcare Waterproof Tape – this tape is waterproof, binds strongly to skin, is flexible and doesn't leave a residue but is expensive, thicker that Transpore and doesn't tear straight. Although useful for securing gauze and protecting sensitive skin, it is not good for securing splints.
- 3M Micropore Paper Tape – this tape is gentle on skin, affordable, sticks well and is even breathable but is not waterproof and is still so it doesn't conform well to areas of the body that bend. It is useful for sensitive skin bandages but not for underwater use, irregular areas of the body or covering blisters.
- 3M Nexcare Durable Cloth Tape – this tape sticks well, leaves no residue, is affordable, breathable, tears straight and has high strength but is not waterproof and is stiff and difficult to tear. It is useful for daily bandages but not for heavy exercise, underwater, irregular areas of the body or covering blisters.
As in many areas of life, there are always tradeoffs. I would suggest that you use at least two of the above tapes, the Medical Transpore and Nexcare Waterproof. Most EMT will use Medical Transpore Tape as it's quick, easy and get's the job done. Although it leaves a residue, it works well for splints. For sensitive skin and areas that require flexibility, without any residue, you might also add the Waterproof Tape. Both tapes are waterproof.
You could, of course, get all four tapes, but you want to make your selections as quick and effective as possible. The first two tapes will effectively cover all the medical needs you should encounter.
- Wraps – you may want to consider including the following specialty items:
- Blister pads – these come in pads, cushions and 2nd skin, which are medical-grade gel adhesive squares that sooth, cool and protect hot spots, blisters, cuts, and burns.
- Steri-strips – these are super adhesive strips which are used to close skin cuts without sutures.
- QuickClot gauze – these are gauze pads with a hemostatic agent that rapidly promotes clotting and stops serious bleeding until medical help can be obtained. All five branches of the military use these for field applications.
- Israeli Bandage – the Israeli bandage is a compression bandage and although not a tourniquet or hemostatic agent (like quick-clot) is another emergency treatment for severe bleeding situations.
- Swat-t tourniquet – the Swat-T tourniquet allows a more rapid means to control extremity bleeding and allows for ease and speed of application.
- SAM Splint – SAM splints is a compact, lightweight, flexible and versatile device which is designed to immobilize bone and soft tissue injuries in emergencies settings. You can create anything from a neck cast to a splint for a sprained ankle.
- Instant cold compresses – cold and heat pads are used for a variety of medical issues but cold compresses are definitely in the majority. This chemical, disposable compresses are activated by squeezing and are used immediately after an injury to reduce inflammation. Hot compresses can be used to relax and soothe sore muscles but are more easily replicated, even in the field, than cold compresses.
- Emergency blanket – this is used to reduce the loss of body heat and reduce the effects of shock and hypothermia.
- Cotton Tip swabs – sterile swabs have numerous medical applications and should be a part of all kits.
You may want to consider adding some or all of the above specialty items. Some may be included in your pre-made kit but most will have to be ordered separately.
The chance of buying a First Aid kit with quality medical tools is remote at best. Since most people can't distinguish between cheap and quality tools by observation and since this is a great cost control opportunity, you can expect that your included tools are essentially worthless.
I did a considerable investigation to finally determine the difference. Why? Because low-quality stainless steel instruments will rust. That's right stainless steel that rusts- only in Pakistan.
It turns out that most medical instruments are either German quality steel or low-quality Pakistan made steel. There is a flood of cheap Pakistan make instruments manufactured in Malaysia, Hungary, Poland, and Pakistan.
How do you tell the difference? Most surgical grade instruments are produced with a matte or satin finish, while lower grade instruments are shiny as illustrated below. The surgical grade is above and Pakistan made below.
Surgical grade instruments are marked with company name, item number and country of origin, usually Germany Stainless. They are almost always backed by a lifetime warranty and if taken care of will last for years.
Trauma shears – these are used to quickly and safely cut through clothing in the event of an emergency. They can also be used for cutting gauze pads and bandages, and are probably the most common tool in any first aid kit.
Most trauma shears included in First Aid kits, however, are pure junk. Although I've had difficulty in finding German Stainless Trauma shears, (I'm beginning to believe they don't exist), I have found three quality trauma shears that you can consider.
In descending order of cost, the first is The Leatherman Raptor. The Raptor is not only shears but includes multiple tools, ala Leatherman, – such as seat belt cutter, ring cutter, ruler, oxygen tank wrench, and carbide glass breaker. You can imagine a first responder using all of these items. If you're an EMT or want to give a super gift to an EMT, I can't think of a better object. The second is XShears which are incredible trauma shear with a little different look. You can tell, however, just by observing, that it's all quality. With a five year warranty, they are marketed as “like a Raptor, without all the extras”. The third is a company that uses Japanese surgical grade stainless steel and even provides a lifetime warranty. The company is Carabiner Shears and the shears have a built-in and very handy carabiner. The product is the Flouride coated EMT Trauma Shears with Carabiner. From use and observation, these are truly quality instruments and will form the basis for any medical tool collection. Three quality choices, based on usage and cost.
Blunt tip scissors – these scissors are used to cut bandages and tape on a patient's body and can also be used for cutting pads and gauze. The best instruments I've been able to find and own are the IMS Premium Quality Supercut Bandage Scissors. Interesting, these are a little more expensive than the Pakistan grade scissors, but not by much.
Tweezers – there are many types and sizes fo tweezers but for first aid purposes, these are often used to remove splinters. Tweezers are probably more difficult to make correctly than other surgical instruments and quality tweezers for example, for removing a splinter, like the Regine Switzerland Splinter Tweezers, can cost considerably more than other instruments. The Regine is akin to buying a Rolex in tweezers. Normal tweezers, like the IMS Premium Quality Forceps, are much more reasonable in price. They are, however, not as specialized for splinter removal.
Thermometer – Vicks ComfortFlex Digital most kits will not have this but every household should have a thermometer both for at home use and in their first aid kit. After purchasing and examining a number of these, I highly recommend the Vicks Thermometer for its speed of operation, clarity, and accuracy. This little digital thermometer is also the top recommendation of WireCutter.
CPR mask – the CPR mask is for your protection. Unfortunately, too many people have HIV, Hepatitis C, and other communicable diseases. The CPR mask allows you to give rescue breathing while protecting you from the transmission of the recipient's body fluids and possible contamination of a disease. The CPR mask I use and recommend is the MCR Medical CPR Mask available from Amazon.
Blood pressure monitor – adding a blood pressure monitor is really only necessary as a family medical device. Although it may be useful in the field, it's size is somewhat prohibited. I use and recommend the Omron 10 Series Wireless Bluetooth Monitor which is also the top recommendation for Consumer Reports due to accuracy and reliability.
Wound irrigation – this is a small item, essentially a needleless syringe that is used to irrigate and clean out a wound. Some kits, like the Adventure Medical Kist Mountain Series Backpacker Medic Kit include it. Otherwise, you'll need to purchase separately, like this option, or improvise with a plastic bag that had been pierced with a safety pin.
Nitrile gloves – although you still see latex gloves used, with written warnings, at many medical facilities, an amazing percentage of individuals (5-10%) are allergic to latex. Since often the last thing you can assess is known allergies, it is only reasonable to buy and use nitrile gloves. Again, like the CPR mask, this mainly protects you, although it certainly protects the medical recipient.
Sawyer Snake Bite and Sting Kit – old snake bite kits used to contain razors and suction cups but were often more problematic than the actual snake bite. The Sawyer kit contains a pumping syringe with a few first aid supplies – band-aids and alcohol pads, that address snake bites and insect stings. The instruction manual alone is worth studying. This is really a nice to have and should be considered if you're in an area, or are going into an area where snakes are a potential danger. The U.S. has 4 poisonous snakes – rattlesnakes, cotton mouth, copper head and the coral snake. Of course, your goal is immediate medical treatment in the event of a snake bite, but as soon as possible, using the snake bite kit could be extremely helpful.
I've detailed a number of tools that you may or may not need right away. Others are nice to have or may be specific to your area or the area you plan on visiting. Certainly, most will not be included with your pre-made First Aid kit. It is, however, important to know what's available and understand the quality levels, so you can review and make the selections that best meet your needs.
Again, all of these items should probably be purchased for home use and you can decide from there which items need to be added to your portable first aid kit. If nothing more, you'll have a good understanding of what tools are available and where they are needed in a medical emergency.
Summary and recommendations
You should have a correct understanding of why you really need a First Aid kit to protect your family.
How much should you pay? Well, you want to be reasonable, but the safety and protection of your family are priceless. It is to me and I'm sure it is to you.
I've shared the 21 typical First Aid emergencies that you can be addressed by you and a properly configured and stocked First Aid kit.
We've also covered the 8 categories to be included in a legitimate First Aid kit from the container itself to the various medical tools. In this analysis, I hope you've also learned a bit more about the various medicines and their specific uses. Medicine and technology continue to advance and concepts like 2nd generation Antihistamines, which reduce the side effects and increase benefits are truly medical wonders that we can take full advantage of. Even battlefield innovations such as Quick-Clot, Israeli bandages, and Swat-T Tourniquets are readily available and offer immense improvements and effective medical results, over what had previously been available.
So, how do you make your own First Aid kit?
My recommendation is to start with a basic kit, such as the Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Series Backpacker Medic Kit, determine what is available in the kit, and simply go through the remaining categories to add as needed.
For example, address your personal items (medical contact info and prescriptions), ensure you have all three of the antiseptics, anesthetics, and antibiotics. The last paragraph in each category will tip you on what to include.
Ointments, pain relievers and over the counter and prescription medications also have recommendations at the end of each section. Finally, bandages and medical tools list the more common specialty items that you should consider.
Another approach is to build a bigger home first aid kit from scratch and either, use the Adventure Kit as your car and backpacking kit, splitting supplies leaving the majority in the home kit and replenish the travel bag as needed, or creating a travel kit from the main kit's supplies.
Where do you go from here?
I highly recommend that you study First Aid medicine and maybe even consider a First Aid class. At least register for a CPR class, as this can really be a lifesaver.
One nice feature of the recommended first aid kit is the included First Aid book – A Comprehensive Guide to Wilderness and Travel Medicine by Eric A. Weiss, M.D. If you don't get the Adventure kit, at least get the book and study it. I believe, this book is simply the best first aid manual out there, and includes a number of sections such as “when to worry” and “improvised techniques”.
Putting together your own First Aid kit is really the best way to understand and appreciate how you can protect and keep your family safe from the unfortunate but inevitable medical issues all families face.
Be well, be safe.