They say you can fix anything with duct tape. How about bad wounds?
By James Hubbard, MD
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Why duct tape is a first aid staple
In a survival situation—such as after a huge storm, when the roads are out and you can’t get medial help—one of the most likely injuries you’ll get is a wound. And one of the most likely supplies you’ll be able to access is duct tape. Fortunately, that’ll often do the trick (unless you’re allergic to latex, which, warning: duct tape contains). Here’s how to protect a wound, close a cut, and even stop a shooting victim’s lung from collapsing—all with duct tape. Check more of my genius first aid tricks for when help is NOT on the way here.
If you’re bleeding
First things first: Stop the bleeding. If putting pressure on a badly bleeding arm, leg, hand, or foot doesn’t work, use a tourniquet. Duct tape is not nearly as good for this as a commercial tourniquet or even a belt, but it’s worth a try if it’s all you have in a dire situation. The quickest trick is just to tape around your bleeding arm or leg, above the wound, taping tighter and tighter until the bleeding stops. Use a 2-inch-wide strip: too narrow can cut into the skin; too wide doesn’t allow for enough compression. This quick-wrap method is fast, but one downside is you may not be able to get the tape tight enough to stop the bleeding. Another option is to create an adjustable tourniquet. Fold a strip of duct tape together so there’s no stickiness. Wrap the strip around the arm or leg, above the wound. Tie the ends of the strip to a strong stick, and wind the stick like a steering wheel, twisting the tape tighter and tighter, until the bleeding stops. Whatever kind of tourniquet you use, get professional medical help as soon as possible because keeping a tourniquet on too long can cause permanent tissue damage or the loss of a limb. Here’s how you can use a T-shirt as a makeshift tourniquet.
If a wound is dirty
After you stop the bleeding, unless you’re going to get professional medical help within a few hours, you need to make sure the wound is clean. Pressure irrigation with drinkable water works best for most wounds. If you have no running water, you could fill a clean plastic bag or disposable water bottle with water and poke a pinhole in the bottom. Squeeze the water through the hole and into the wound. If you don’t have a container that will do, you can make one out of duct tape. Tear several strips of duct tape, each about a foot or so long. Tape the strips together, overlapping the wide sides, to make one long, fat rectangle. Cover the sticky side of the rectangle with more strips so there’s no stickiness on either side. Curl the rectangle around and tape one side to the other, making a tube. Pinch one end of the tube closed, and crease it. Tape that shut. Now you have a bag. Stick a pinhole in the bottom, fill the bag with the clean water and squeeze.
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If a wound needs to be closed
Closing a wound is not as important as many people think. Stopping the bleeding and cleaning the wound should take priority. However, after you’ve done this, if a wound is gaping and you can’t get medical help or equipment for days, closing it will help it heal quicker. (Caveat: Never close a dirty wound, animal bite, or puncture wound; that’ll just set you up for a bad infection.) Duct tape is a great makeshift option for this purpose. Clean the wound, and dry the skin around it. Tear off several strips of duct tape that are about 3 inches long and one-quarter-inch wide. Starting at one end of the wound, bring the cut edges together with your hand. They should touch but not be squeezed tightly. Tape them together, placing the tape perpendicular to the wound. Continue down the wound, leaving about a one-quarter-inch space between each strip.
If a wound needs to be protected
To protect the wound from dirt and such, you can make a simple bandage by taking some gauze or a clean piece of cloth and taping it down with duct tape.
If a wound needs to be dry
A bandage that lets a little air in is not a bad thing unless you’re going to get it wet with dirty liquids. If you are, you can make what’s called an occlusive dressing with duct tape because this tape is waterproof. Just place gauze or clean cloth on the wound, and tape over this dressing with enough strips to seal it.
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If you’re worried about a collapsed lung
This trick should only be used when professional medical help is not coming or is delayed. But in that case, it could save a life. If someone is shot, stabbed, or otherwise punctured in the chest all the way through to the lung cavity, the person can develop a collapsed lung. Warning signs of such a collapse include shortness of breath and bubbling coming from the wound. If the person is in immediate distress like this, you can try to stop the collapse process by creating a one-way valve. The goal is to stop air from getting sucked into the chest through the wound as the person breathes but still allow excess air to escape the chest through the wound. One way to create such a valve is with duct tape. First, get a gauze pad, or tape two strips of 2-inch-wide duct tape together so there’s no sticky side. This is your valve lid. If you have something like petroleum jelly, put that on this lid to help it lightly adhere to the skin. Place the valve lid onto the puncture wound. Tape down three sides—loosely, allowing for a little slack. Leave one side untaped. When the person breathes in, your valve lid will get sucked down and seal the wound so air can’t get in. But when the person breathes out, excess air from the chest should be able to push up the lid just a bit and escape through the edge that’s not taped down.
If you’re worried about a scratched cornea
When you think something’s in your eye but can’t find it, you may be feeling a scratch instead. Patching the eyelid closed will relieve some of the discomfort until you can get medical help. Get a little gauze or clean cloth to use as padding. If you don’t have that, you can just fold several layers of duct tape together. Make sure there’s no sticky side left. The padding should be about the size of the eye orbit. Close your eye, and tape the padding snugly onto it with several 1- to 2-inch-wide strips of duct tape. Tape them diagonally from the middle of the forehead to the back of the cheekbone. Usually, a scratched cornea heals within 24 to 48 hours, but sometimes it can take longer. See your health care provider because you might need antibiotic eye drops. The provider will also use special equipment make sure there’s nothing in the eye that you just couldn’t see.
If you’re worried about a punctured cornea
If you think you may have punctured the eye clear through the cornea, until you can get help, you don’t want to put pressure on the eye and risk some of the gel coming out. One way to protect the eye somewhat is to create an eyecup. To use duct tape for this, fold a strip of tape in half lengthwise and roll it into a cylinder whose circumference is a little bigger than your eye orbit’s. Put the cup on the eye area so you’re looking through the hole. The cup should be resting on the bones around your eye, not the interior of the eye socket. Lightly tape it down as you would an eye patch, but with none of the pressure on the eye.
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Get more first aid tips and tricks
Find more makeshift medical solutions in Dr. Hubbard’s newest book, The Survival Doctor’s Complete Handbook. And visit TheSurvivalDoctor.com for even more evidence-based tips for dealing with medical problems when getting expert care is impossible.