Do Tourniquets Expire? Guide to Trauma Kit Shelf Life
Life-saving items such as tourniquets often come with a shelf life even when they haven’t been used. We know that, as with anything, even without use or exposure to the elements, most materials degrade over time.
But do tourniquets expire? This important question has a simple answer; though tourniquets don't expire, anyone with a tourniquet in their trauma kit or first aid kit should check it every now and again to ensure it's in good working order, especially if it has been exposed to high temperatures or other environmental factors that could affect the integrity of the material.
How Long Do Tourniquets Last?
Pieces of medical equipment such as tourniquets occasionally come with an expiry date, which is often stated as somewhere between five and ten years. In reality, many medical supplies stored in normal conditions don't expire.
There is some debate as to whether C-A-T® tourniquets (Combat Application Tourniquets or CAT tourniquets) stored in more extreme conditions, such as those carried by the military in combat situations, might be more liable to degradation due to the extreme heat they are exposed to. If so, these items would need to be replaced periodically. Rubber tourniquets, such as the SWAT-T, will naturally degrade over time and need to be replaced.
Do I Need to Store Different Tourniquets in Different Conditions?
There are four main types of tourniquets, each of which features different materials and a different design to match its intended use:
- Emergency Tourniquets: These include windlass tourniquets and stretch-band tourniquets like the SWAT-T. Emergency tourniquets are mostly used in the treatment of gunshot wounds, traumatic injuries, and crushed limbs.
- Surgical Tourniquets: These are used by surgeons during surgery to prevent blood flow to a limb.
- Clinical Tourniquets: Perhaps the most commonly seen tourniquets, these are used by medical professionals to draw blood or for needle insertion.
- Rehabilitation Tourniquets: Rehabilitation tourniquets restrict blood flow temporarily to help a patient increase muscle size and strength faster when performing low-intensity exercises.
Storage instructions will remain the same no matter which type of tourniquet you have:
- Keep your tourniquet or tourniquet-containing trauma kit in a cool environment, away from direct exposure to sunlight.
- Keep your medical equipment clean and dry. Not touching the equipment more than necessary will help to keep your items intact for as long as possible.
Do I Need a Tourniquet at Home or at Work?
According to a 2021 study by Barnard et al., initial tourniquet application was performed:
- 48% by law enforcement
- 33% by laypersons
- 18% by EMS
This shows how diverse situations involving the need for a tourniquet are. Emergency situations can happen anywhere, and having a tourniquet in your bag or on a duty belt could mean the difference between life and death.
How Can I Check My Tourniquet Is In Good Working Order?
If you have a tourniquet in a bleeding control kit or any other first aid kit for personal or professional use, it's a great idea to check from time to time that it appears to be in good condition. If you are worried about the integrity of the tourniquet for any reason, it's best to replace the item and use the expired or compromised item as a training tourniquet.
Important note: To prevent people from using a compromised tourniquet in an emergency situation, write “TRAINER” on the tourniquet with a permanent marker.
If your tourniquet has remained in its plastic wrap and hasn't been exposed to excessive UV light or extreme heat, it should still be in good condition. If it has been moved or used (for training) before, make sure that there's no build-up of dirt and that the buckle and straps appear unharmed.
Can You Reuse Tourniquets?
If you have used a tourniquet in an emergency situation (even if it’s the best tourniquet on the market), you shouldn't reuse it. When a tourniquet has been used to stem blood loss, it gets exposed to blood and dirt which makes it unhygienic for further use. Furthermore, the strain placed on a tourniquet during use can cause it to fail at a later date.
Tourniquets used for educational purposes can be reused, though it is best practice to specify tourniquets that are to be used for educational or training purposes, and keep these separate from tourniquets that are intended for emergency use. Beyond the repeated use that training tourniquets are subjected to, sometimes tourniquets used for training purposes are not put back into a rapidly-deployable configuration after training, and are therefore not emergency-ready.
What Can I Do With Expired Items?
If the tourniquet in your medical kit comes with an expiration date and, after checking its integrity, you decide that it’s not fit for use, there's no need to throw it away. The most obvious solution for an expired tourniquet is to use it to train your employees or family members in life-saving emergency treatment. Just remember to mark it clearly with the word “TRAINER.”
You can also find out whether local schools or charities would accept an unopened and unused tourniquet as an educational tool. Alternatively, you can buy a replacement and keep the expired product as a backup.
Proper Storage Is Key to the Longevity of Tourniquets and other Medical Equipment
As a general rule, tourniquets don't come with expiration dates. However, you can keep your medical supplies in good condition for as long as possible with sound storage practices. Keeping your items clean, cool, and dry will go a long way to maintaining the properties of the tourniquet for as long as possible.
That said, keep a close eye on your medical equipment to make sure it’s fit for use in the case of an emergency. If you’re not 100% confident about the structural integrity of your tourniquet, replace it. It’s also a good idea to keep a backup tourniquet to make sure you can stem traumatic bleeding if the first tourniquet fails.