17 Common First Aid Myths That Hurt People, According To A Red Cross Trainer

Some first aid is common sense. Other knowledge and skills must be learned — ideally in a recognized first aid & CPR training course.

First aid myths that hurt people, what to do instead Stevica Mrdja / EyeEm, MattGush | Canva

After 25 years as a Canadian Red Cross Training Partner, I’ve heard many fascinating and horrifying anecdotes about how best to give first aid to the sick or injured.  I’ve also been amazed at how some people have survived despite the unconventional treatment they’ve received from well-meaning bystanders.

There are many ways to provide first aid. Some are effective, while others are downright reckless. I’d like to dispel some of the most popular myths surrounding this topic. With each myth listed below, I’ve provided the current first aid recommendations according to guidelines from the Red Cross.


Emergency Medical Services has been abbreviated as EMS. I’ve omitted the phone number as it varies between countries. Ensure you and your loved ones know your local EMS phone number. Based on my experience and reviews from Red Cross resources, I will cover 17 important first-aid issues in this story and distill critical information to give you valuable content for use.

Here are 17 first-aid myths that hurt people, according to a Red Cross trainer:

1. Heart Attack

Myth: You must make a person lie down if they’re having a heart attack.

A heart attack usually happens when a sudden blockage in the heart prevents oxygenated blood from reaching an area of the heart muscle. It is not necessary to make a person lie down. They will put themselves in a position they find most comfortable. For first aid for heart attack:


1. Call EMS and have the person rest comfortably, either sitting or lying, to ease the strain on the heart. Encourage them to sit on the floor leaning against a sturdy object like a chair or the wall. They can’t fall off the floor and are less likely to hurt themselves if they collapse.

2. If Aspirin (ASA) is available, encourage the person to chew one 325 mg or two 80 mg ASA tablets unless the person has an allergy or a contraindication to ASA, such as a bleeding disorder. Ensure that the person thoroughly chews and swallows the ASA. Do not repeat the dosage.

3. If the person takes a prescribed medication like nitroglycerin to relieve chest pain, offer to fetch the medication and help the person to take it. If the person has nitroglycerin in a spray or pill form, ensure they spray or place it under their tongue.

4. Reassure the person. Anxiety may increase the person’s discomfort.

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RELATED: 9 Heart Attack Symptoms You Should Never, Ever Ignore

2. Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs)

An AED is a small, portable electronic device that automatically diagnoses life-threatening heart rhythms and can treat them through defibrillation — the application of an electrical shock. The shock stops the arrhythmia, allowing the heart to re-establish an effective rhythm.

Myth: AEDs are complicated to use.


Although AEDs may appear complicated, they are easy to use. Press the power button, and the machine will talk to you and tell you what to do. 

If you can apply the electrical pads to the person’s chest within three minutes and deliver a shock if required, you will significantly increase their chances of survival.

A defibrillator will not deliver a shock if a casualty does not need it, so you cannot harm the person. However, to give the person the best chance of survival, you must provide quality CPR (chest compressions with rescue breathing). 

CPR pumps oxygenated blood to the heart and brain, keeping the person alive until advanced medical care arrives. Therefore, learning how to give quality CPR and use an AED is essential.


3. Sprains

A sprain occurs when a ligament is stretched, torn, or damaged.

Myth: You should apply heat to a muscle, bone, or joint injury to speed healing.

Applying heat dilates (widens) the blood vessels in the area, bringing more blood to the area and increasing swelling. Therefore, heat is not the best treatment for an acute muscle, bone, or joint injury.

Applying cold constricts (narrows) to the blood vessels reduces blood flow to the area and helps reduce swelling. In addition, it slows the nerve impulses and helps to relieve pain. For first aid for sprains:

  1. If the injury seems severe or the person is in significant pain, call EMS.
  2. If a person has a suspected sprained joint, encourage them to see their healthcare provider to confirm that they do not have a fracture.
  3. When treating an injury, apply cold initially. For a sprain, apply a cold pack for about 20 minutes. Use the RICE treatment of Rest, Immobilize, Cold, and Elevation for the first 24 hours.

Ice decreases blood flow, so expect less swelling and inflammation. However, if the swelling doesn’t go down, the person should see a doctor.


4. Fainting

Fainting is a brief period of unconsciousness that occurs when the brain is not receiving adequate blood flow. If someone suddenly becomes unresponsive and “comes to” after about a minute, the person may have simply fainted.

Myth: If someone feels faint, get them to put their head between their legs

If a person who is feeling lightheaded puts their head between their legs, there’s a risk they might fall forward and injure themselves. A person may become pale, dizzy, nauseous, or sweaty before fainting. If you think that someone is about to faint, have them lie down. For first aid for fainting:

  1. If the person loses consciousness, roll them onto their side and place them in the recovery position.
  2. Call EMS and get an AED if the person has been unresponsive for more than a few minutes, is pregnant, has an unknown medical history, or you suspect that the person fainted as a result of a serious injury or illness. If you are unsure, call EMS and get an AED.
  3. Encourage the person to follow up with their healthcare provider.

5. Nosebleeds

Myth: Leaning backward stops a nosebleed


Getting a person to tilt their head back will not stop a nosebleed. The blood will go down their throat instead of flowing out of the nose, which could lead to choking, stomach irritation, and vomiting. For first aid for nosebleeds:

  1. Have the person sit with the head slightly forward. Have them firmly pinch the nostrils below the bony bridge for 10 to 15 minutes until the bleeding stops. Don’t put tissues or gauze into the nose to stop a nosebleed; do not pinch the nose if the person has a severe head injury.
  2. Once the bleeding has stopped, advise the person to avoid blowing, rubbing, or picking their nose because this could start the bleeding again.
  3. If the person loses responsiveness, put them in the recovery position to help the blood drain from their nose and call Emergency Medical Services.

6. Bleeding

Myth: Coffee grounds stop bleeding

Applying coffee grounds to a wound to stop bleeding can lead the wound to become infected. It also makes it very hard for healthcare providers to clean out a wound requiring stitches. Bleeding that can’t be stopped at home likely needs medical care. For first aid to stop bleeding:

  1. Apply firm, direct pressure to the wound
  2. While maintaining direct pressure, apply a dressing and bandage it in place.
  3. If blood soaks through the bandage, put another bandage on top.
  4. If direct pressure does not control the bleeding, consider using a tourniquet.

7. Burns

Burns are soft tissue injuries caused by heat, chemicals, electricity, or radiation.


Myth: For heat burns, apply ice or butter.

Putting ice or butter directly on a burned area will worsen the burn. Ice applied directly to burned skin can increase skin damage. Any greasy substance on a burn insulates the area and drives the burn into the flesh. It slows healing and makes it harder for a doctor to treat the burned area.

For the first aid for burns caused by heat:

  1. Cool the affected area with water or a clean, cool (but not freezing compress) for at least 10 minutes.
  2. Remove jewelry and clothing from the burn site, but do not attempt to move anything stuck to the skin.
  3. Cover the burn loosely with a dry, sterile dressing. If the burn begins to blister, change color, or look infected, get medical treatment. Always seek medical attention for second or third-degree burns.

RELATED: A Sobering Wake-Up Call In The ER Forced Me To Drastically Change My Life


8. Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a serious condition that occurs when a person’s body loses heat faster than it can produce it, and the body temperature becomes dangerously low.

Myth: A shot of alcohol can warm a hypothermic patient.

Alcohol may give a pleasant feeling of warmth but dilates the blood vessels, which causes more heat loss, not less. Alcohol delays the onset of shivering — a mechanism that produces heat — and reduces its duration. It can also affect a person’s judgment and coordination, two conditions to avoid.

Hypothermia slows a person’s breathing, so you’ll need to spend a little longer than usual checking their ABCs. If the person is unresponsive and you suspect hypothermia, check for signs of breathing for 60 seconds. For first aid for hypothermia:

  1. Call EMS and get an AED if the person has moderate to severe hypothermia.
  2. Handle the person gently to avoid triggering ventricular fibrillation and keep them lying down. Only move the person if it is necessary. Take care not to jostle or bump them.
  3. Remove wet clothing, providing the area is sheltered from the cold environment.
  4. Prevent further heat loss by replacing the person’s wet clothes with dry ones and warming them in a sheltered area.
  5. Add layers of clothing and a hat or other head covering. Focus on warming the core first.
  6. If the person is conscious and able to swallow, have them drink warm, sweet fluids.
  7. Have the severely hypothermic patient rest and stay still until they are sufficiently warm unless you have special training in rapid or active re-warming techniques.

Putting two hypothermic people together in the same sleeping bag is not a good way to warm them. One person must have a normal body temperature. It is better to wrap such a hypothermic person in clothing inside a sleeping bag and allow him to shiver, which generates heat.

17 Common First Aid Myths That Hurt People & What the Red Cross Recommends Instead fizkes / Shutterstock

9. Frostbite

Frostbite is damage to the skin caused by extreme cold.


Myth: When someone has frostbite, you should rub the frozen area or apply snow.

When providing care for frostbite, don’t rub the frozen area or put snow on it. If you rub the skin, ice crystals inside the cells may damage the tissues. Rubbing snow on the area will only worsen the condition.

Do not run hot water over frozen skin to warm it. Doing this increases the risk of skin damage if the water is too hot. For the first aid for frostbite:

  1. If possible, remove jewelry or other extraneous material that may restrict blood flow to the affected area.
  2. Thaw the area only if you are sure it will not freeze again.

3. Warm the affected area using warm water, if available (approximately 38 to 40°C (100.4 to 104°F)) or body heat (e.g., by placing the person’s hands in their armpits or on the abdomen). You should be able to put your own hands in the water for a minute without feeling too warm.


4. If the frozen area has thawed, don’t break any blisters. Protect them with loose, dry dressings. Place gauze between the fingers or toes if they are affected.

5. If possible, elevate any thawed extremities above the level of the heart. 6. Thawing frostbite can be extremely painful, so the person may wish to take an over-the-counter painkiller. 7. Rehydrate the person by providing plenty of fluids. 8. Encourage the person to seek medical attention.

10. Hyperventilating

Hyperventilation is rapid, uncontrolled breathing.

Myth: If someone is hyperventilating, you should have them breathe into a paper bag.

It’s a traditional practice to treat hyperventilation by breathing into a paper bag, also known as “rebreathing,” When a person hyperventilates, they expel carbon dioxide too rapidly. Rebreathing exhaled air helps restore the lost gas and restore proper oxygen levels.


Several medical conditions, like asthma and heart attacks, look like hyperventilation and can cause confusion. In these cases, reducing oxygen and increasing carbon dioxide can be fatal.

One study described three cases in which people having heart attacks mistakenly thought they were hyperventilating and died after losing oxygen while they were breathing into bags. Breathing into a paper bag is unsafe; doctors do not recommend it.

For first aid for hyperventilation, the best treatment is encouraging the person to stay calm and take slow, controlled breaths. If the hyperventilation doesn’t stop, get medical assistance.

11. Seizures

A seizure is a sudden period of uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain that causes short-lived abnormalities in muscle tone or body movements, behavior, sensations, or level of consciousness.


Myth: You should put something between the teeth of a person having a seizure to prevent them from biting or swallowing their tongue.

This practice is unsafe and unnecessary. It is impossible to swallow one’s tongue. Although the person may bite down on the tongue, causing it to bleed, this is a minor problem compared to the risks of attempting to put an object in the person’s mouth.

The person could chip a tooth or knock a tooth loose, creating a choking hazard. The person may also bite down with enough force to break the object and then choke on one of the pieces. Additionally, attempting to place an object in the person’s mouth puts you at risk of being bitten. First aid for seizure:

  1. Roll the person onto their side if you can do so safely to keep an open airway.
  2. Remove any hazards and, if possible, put a pillow underneath the head.
  3. Do not try to hold the person down or stop the seizure from happening.

Call EMS if:


you don’t know the person or the person’s medical history.

the seizure lasts more than a few minutes.

the person has several seizures, one after another.

the person is injured.

the person is pregnant.

the person is experiencing a diabetic emergency.

the seizure happens in the water.

this is the person’s first seizure, or you don’t know what caused the seizure.

the person fails to wake up after the seizure or is unresponsive for a long time.

Protect the person from injury by:

  • Moving furniture and other objects that could cause injury out of the way. • Protecting the person’s head with a soft object (such as a blanket).

RELATED: 3 Ways Having Epilepsy Was The Best Thing To Ever Happen To Me


12. Fever

Myth: Rubbing alcohol brings down a fever.

Wiping rubbing alcohol on your skin makes the skin feel cooler but doesn’t cool the body or reduce fever. Also, alcohol can be absorbed through the skin. For small children and infants, in particular, giving a child a sponge bath with rubbing alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning. First aid for fever:

  1. Give the person a medicine that reduces fever and contains ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
  2. Call the person’s healthcare provider if you don’t know what to do or if the fever doesn’t go away.

13. Swallowed poisons

Myth: Induce vomiting in a poisoned person.

When a person has swallowed a poisonous substance, you might think vomiting it would help, but making them vomit can cause additional harm, and doctors do not recommend it. Sometimes, the person may vomit on their own.


In the past, people used a medicine called Ipecac Syrup to cause vomiting. However, this is not encouraged. A corrosive substance will damage the esophagus on the way down and again on the way up as it exits the body. It may cause inflammation and blockage. For first aid for swallowed poison:

1. If the person is not breathing, start CPR. Use a barrier device so you don’t contaminate yourself with the poison.

2. Check the packaging of the poison, if possible, so that you know what it is.

3. Induce vomiting only if told to do so by the EMS dispatcher or the Poison Control Centre.

4. If the person needs to go to the hospital, bring a sample of the poison (or its original container).


14. Snake bites

Myth: You can help slow the spread of venom through the body by cutting the wound or applying suction, ice, electricity, or a tourniquet.

These measures are not effective in slowing the spread of venom. They are likely to cause pain and injury. First aid for snake bites is to seek medical attention as quickly as possible.

  1. Call EMS and get an AED. If you are unsure whether a venomous snake caused the snakebite, call EMS anyway. Do not wait for life-threatening signs and symptoms of poisoning to appear.
  2. Before providing care, ensure that the snake is no longer present. If you see the snake, remember what it looks like so that you can describe it to EMS personnel. This information will help them provide the most appropriate treatment. Never attempt to capture or handle a potentially venomous snake.
  3. Keep the injured site still and level with the heart if possible.
  4. If the bite is on a limb, remove jewelry or tight clothing from the limb and watch for swelling.
  5. Wash the wound with water.
  6. Cover the wounded area with a clean, dry dressing.

Don’t try to suck the venom out. The venom from the snake bite is shot into the bloodstream towards the heart and moves around the body. There is no way you could suck out all the venom. Instead, keep the bite below the level of the heart and try to stay calm as you contact the emergency medical services.


15. Jellyfish stings

Myth: Peeing on a jellyfish sting helps ease the pain.

Peeing on a jellyfish sting can do more harm than good. Urine only makes the jellyfish stinger release more venom, thus causing more pain for the patient.

For the first aid of jellyfish stings, call EMS and get an AED if the person is having airway or breathing problems, was stung on the face or neck, or does not know what caused the sting.

1. Get the person out of the water as soon as possible.

2. Flush the injured area with vinegar for at least 30 seconds to counteract the toxin. If vinegar is unavailable, mix baking soda and water into a paste and leave it on the area for 20 minutes.


3. While wearing gloves or using a towel, carefully remove any stingers, tentacles, or pieces of the animal.

4. Immerse the affected area in water as hot as the person can tolerate (no more than 45°C (113°F)) for at least 20 minutes or until the pain is relieved.

5. If hot water is unavailable, use dry hot packs or even dry cold packs to help decrease the pain. Remember to wrap the hot or cold packs in a thin, dry towel or cloth to protect the skin. Do not rub the area or apply a bandage.

If the person has been stung by a Portuguese man-of-war (a bluebottle jellyfish), flush the injured areas with ocean water instead of vinegar. Do not flush any jellyfish sting with fresh water, ammonia, or rubbing alcohol because these substances can increase the person’s pain.


16. Tick bites

Ticks are found in wooded, bushy areas, tall grass, and leaves on the ground. They can cause serious illnesses such as Lyme Disease.

Myth: You can remove a tick safely by burning it off with a flame or smothering it with petroleum jelly or nail polish.

More practical, safer, and quicker methods exist than these folk remedies.

  1. If the tick hasn’t yet begun to dig into the flesh, remove it by brushing it off the skin.
  2. If the tick has begun to bite, attempt to remove it in one piece as quickly as possible. The best tool for this is fine-tipped tweezers or a tick removal tool, such as a tick key. Use tweezers to grasp the tick by the head as close to the person’s skin as possible.
  3. Pull upward slowly and steadily without twisting until the tick releases its hold. If you cannot remove the tick or its mouthparts stay in the skin, the person must seek medical attention.
  4. Once you’ve removed the tick, wash the area with clean tap water. The running water’s pressure allows it to penetrate more deeply into the wound.
  5. Save the tick in a resealable bag and record the date.
  6. Advise the person to monitor the bite for several days for signs and symptoms of infection. The person should seek medical attention if they notice the area shows signs of infection, e.g., redness, warmth, and pain, or if they develop a fever.

17. Getting sued for giving first aid

Myth: You could get sued if you perform CPR.


For public safety, the law protects people taking reasonable actions to save someone’s life. If you stay with an injured person until help arrives and help them as best you can within the scope of your training, the law will protect you.

But what if the person dies?

If you started CPR and the person didn’t survive, know that you didn’t kill the person. If someone goes into cardiac arrest, the person is already dying. If no one starts CPR, their chances of surviving until EMS arrives are almost non-existent. Unless you know they have a signed do not resuscitate (DNR) order, the best thing you can do is start CPR.

There are many myths about first-aid treatment. The best way to become confident in your knowledge and skills is to take a first aid and CPR class from a well-recognized and respected organization like the Red Cross.


Everyone can benefit from first aid and CPR training. It gives people the skills and confidence to act quickly and effectively in an emergency, giving sick or injured people the best chance of survival.

There is never a convenient time for an accident, injury, or sudden medical emergency. It’s essential to prepare and be ready to assist at any moment. There’s no better gift you can give a person than saving their life.

RELATED: Doctor Reveals 8 Medical Myths People Continue To Frustratingly Believe

Gill McCulloch is a writer, mother, and owner of a Red Cross first aid training agency in BC, Canada. Her articles, poems, and stories have been featured on Medium and in Chicken Soup for the Soul.