Whether it’s a common cut or something scarier like chest pains, you need the right items to handle a medical emergency.
But most people aren’t well-prepared.
“People either have no first-aid kit, or the materials are insufficient or expired,” says Manoj Singh, M.D., assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in Ohio.
Just as important: You need to be able to find them quickly. That’s why experts advise that you keep emergency supplies in one place: either in a traditional first-aid kit or a designated medicine cabinet.
Here are the top 10 items medical experts say should be within reach in any healthy home. They’re available at your local drugstore.
1. Plain bar or hand soap.
This may seem obvious, but the old-fashioned soap-and-water combo is still the best way to clean minor cuts and scrapes.
“Rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide and witch hazel all damage your skin, and they don’t clean wounds any better,” says Joanne Watson, M.D., a family physician at Patient First near Baltimore, Md.
Here’s another eye-opener: Plain soap works just as well as antibacterial soap, Watson says. (Plus, it may be safer – the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] is currently reviewing the safety of triclosan, the active ingredient in many antibacterial soaps, after concerns it might alter hormones or cause antibiotic-resistant bacteria.)
2. An assortment of plain adhesive bandages/Band-Aids.
For minor injuries, the simpler, the better.
“The wound just needs to be clean, so there’s no need for antibiotic-impregnated or other fancy bandages,” Watson says.
Make sure you have a variety of sizes to handle various wounds, and stockpile gauze pads and paper tape (for securing the pads). On larger wounds, a pad will cover, protect and absorb any drainage from it.
3. An elastic wrap.
Also called an ACE bandage (based on the best-known brand name), “these are excellent for giving support to a sprained joint,” says Jennifer Zimmer, M.D., an internal medicine specialist at the Baylor Regional Medical Center in Plano, Texas.
Just be sure to apply the wrap correctly: If wrapping a foot or ankle, start at the bottom of the foot and wrap it several times around until you reach the ankle, then criss-cross the bandage in a figure-8 pattern behind the heel and secure it at top with some tape.
If it’s too loose, it won’t supply helpful compression; if it’s too tight, it can restrict circulation. (Remove it if the body part feels numb or tingly, gets cold or turns blue.) If you aren’t sure, ask your doctor.
Sure, it’s an age-old headache remedy. But the real reason you need aspirin is for a medical emergency.
“If you have chest pain, chew 325 mg of uncoated aspirin,” Singh advises. “Heart attacks can happen any time, and taking aspirin as soon as possible helps reduce the damage.”
Here’s how: Heart attacks are usually caused by a blood clot in a coronary artery. If you take aspirin (and chew it so it enters your system quickly), its blood-thinning properties can help break down the clot and limit the injury to your heart, Singh says.
Of course, call 911 first.
5. An accurate thermometer.
You need a good thermometer to monitor fevers, which could indicate infection in a wound or worsening of any illness, Zimmer says.
She recommends digital thermometers because they’re easier to read than ones with mercury. And toss ear thermometers and fever strips – they aren’t as precise.
Remember, it’s not a fever until body temperature goes above 100.5˚.
“Everyone thinks that any temperature above 98.6˚ is a fever,” Watson says. “Some schools send kids home when they have a temperature of 99˚, which is perfectly normal.”
6. An antihistamine.
Benadryl (diphenhydramine) can relieve the symptoms of allergic reactions – whether they’re from ragweed, dust, insect bites or a specific food. Doctors often recommend it because it works quickly.
But if you have a severe allergic reaction – difficulty breathing, tongue or lip swelling – don’t count on a pill. Call 911 and get to an emergency room immediately.
7. A topical antibacterial ointment. After cleaning a wound, apply an antibacterial cream like Neosporin, Bacitracin or Polysporin, which will help reduce healing time and infection risk.
You can also use antibacterial ointment on burns. But don’t use butter, oil, salve or cocoa butter because they raise infection risk, Watson says.
“On unbroken skin, use a cold pack,” she says. “And if the burn blister is broken, just wash with plain soap, apply a little antibacterial ointment, and wrap lightly with a bandage.”
8. Mild pain relievers. When someone in your family has a headache or other minor ache, you don’t want to scramble for a painkiller.
Ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) are fine for minor pains, but remember to have kids’ varieties on hand if needed, Singh notes.
“Check the dosage, because children take doses based on their weight.”
9. Hydrocortisone cream. This contains an inflammation-reducing steroid hormone, and can take the itch out of insect bites, poison oak and ivy, and some rashes.
Apply a small amount, and don’t use it for more than a few days at a time without consulting your doctor. Long-term use can raise risk of side effects, notes Debra Wattenberg, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
10. Emergency contact phone numbers.
In case of a medical emergency, tape the contact information for your doctor, pharmacy and the local Poison Control Center (for ingestion of or exposure to toxins) to the inside of your medicine cabinet or first-aid kit.
Toss These… Today!
Now that you know what should be in your medicine cabinet, here’s what to throw out. The following products do more harm than good:
Mercurochrome and betadine. Experts now say that these old-school, wound-cleansing antiseptics can delay healing.
“The new, fragile cells responsible for a wound’s healing are easily damaged by the toxic effects of these agents,” Singh says.
Syrup of ipecac. The American Pediatric Association no longer recommends taking this to induce vomiting after swallowing something dangerous, Singh says. “By causing vomiting, there’s a risk of [inhaling stomach contents into the lungs].”
Rather than wasting time on a risky and possibly ineffective treatment, call 911 or poison control if a family member has swallowed a toxic substance.
Anything old, smelly, runny or outdated. Experts advise that you clean out your medicine cabinets once a year.