How to Save Your Own Life

How a chair, rocks, aspirin, and a scarf can keep you alive in 12 do-or-die emergencies.

By Pamela F. Gallin | MD from Reader's Digest | June 2008

BEAR ATTACK
If you surprise a bear, don’t run away. That invites an attack. Instead, stand up and back away slowly, without looking the bear in the eyes. Speak softly to the animal (no loud shouting). If it does charge at you, try to make yourself look as large as possible: Stick out your chest, raise your arms, and spread your legs. Now you can yell at the bear, to frighten it.

If it’s going to attack, lie facedown, with your hands clasped behind your neck. Play dead and don’t get up until you’re sure the bear is gone. Leave the area immediately in case it returns.

If you’re in bear country, carry a bear-deterrent pepper spray (find one at epa.gov). Make sure the wind isn’t blowing toward you, and spray for one to two seconds when the bear is 30 to 40 feet away.

POISONING
The most common reasons for calls to poison centers? Unintentional or intentional drug overdoses (painkillers, sedatives, and antidepressants are high on the list) and exposure to cleaning products. No matter how
little you’ve ingested, call a poison center before you do anything. The national number is 1-800-222-1222.

Don’t make yourself throw up or give yourself ipecac, the vomit-inducing antidote that used to be a staple in first-aid kits, says Alvin C. Bronstein, MD, medical director of the Rocky Mountain Poison & Drug Center in Denver. “Ipecac has never been proven beneficial,” he says. “We rarely use it today. It’s gone the way of the horse and buggy.”

Ipecac can leave you throwing up for hours. Plus, if you ingested something that burned going down and you force yourself to vomit, it will burn on the way back up too. And say you accidentally took a few extra sedatives. If you take ipecac when you’re overly sleepy and your gag reflex isn’t working well, you can turn a manageable overdose into something much worse.

Colorless, odorless carbon monoxide is a deadly poison that kills nearly 500 unsuspecting people a year. Make sure you have a working detector in your home.

If you’ve inhaled something (bleach or ammonia are common culprits), get away from the toxic area. If it’s something that got on your skin, like a cleaning product, wash it off, then call a poison center and follow the specialist’s advice.

SEVERE BLEEDING
You’re gushing blood—and getting scared. Forget about tourniquets, says Dr. Schneider of the American College of Emergency Physicians. Use your hand or a clean cloth, paper towels, a scarf, or any fabric you can grab, and push down on the wound until the bleeding stops. Tourniquets, which every Boy Scout learned how to make back in the day, are now a first-aid no-no. “If you have a cut on your upper leg and you put pressure on it, you’re just closing that vessel. But if you put a tourniquet on, you’re going to close the vessels to the entire leg,” says Dr. Schneider. “You could lose your foot.”

The only time to use a tourniquet, says Charles Pattavina, MD, chief of emergency medicine at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor, Maine, is when you know that everything below the wound is beyond repair (say, the accident has amputated your finger, arm, or leg).