How to Stop Bleeding From a Gunshot
Bleeding from a gunshot wound requires immediate intervention. The average ambulance response time is 7 to 10 minutes, but a serious trauma victim can bleed out in as little as 3 to 5 minutes. By slowing or stopping the bleed, you can potentially prevent tragedy in those precious minutes.
The optimal intervention will depend on the location of the wound. However, your course of action will ultimately come down to the types of items you have available in the moment.
General Guidelines for Stopping a Gunshot Bleed
Regardless of where the wound is located, there are certain things you need to do right away in the event of a gunshot injury:
- Get to a safe location if possible.
- Call 911 for medical emergency assistance.
- Examine the victim carefully to find the exact location of the bullet wound; look for both entrance and exit wounds.
- Immediately apply direct pressure for any areas of heavy bleeding.
- Have someone grab a bleeding control or Stop the Bleed® Kit (if available), or a First Aid kit if a bleed kit is not available.
- Help the victim to lay flat on a blanket if possible. This will help to decrease the loss of body heat and maintain the flow of blood to the brain.
- Remove any clothing or other barriers from the site of the injury.
A gunshot wound can cause severe internal injuries, potentially causing breathing difficulties, heart issues, and low blood pressure. If the victim is unconscious and not breathing, begin CPR.
How to Stop Gunshot Bleeding for Each Area of the Body
If you have a bleeding control kit and first aid kit, you should already have everything you need to manage the blood loss. However, if you’re missing one or both of these kits, you may have to improvise with items you already have available.
If you don’t have sterile gauze, or a chest seal, or any of the other materials noted below, you can use a clean piece of clothing to cover the wound and apply pressure. For the purposes of this article, however, we’re going to focus on the best materials and dressings to use in any given situation.
For Gunshot Wounds to the Head
For a gunshot wound to the head, take a piece of sterile gauze and apply steady, direct pressure. Press down hard. The goal is to cause the blood to clot as quickly as possible, and that requires very firm pressure.
For Gunshot Wounds to the Chest
For penetrating chest wounds, you’ll ideally want to apply a chest seal, which comes standard in our intermediate and premium bleeding control kits. If no chest seal is available, apply firm pressure with gauze or a clean cloth just as you would for a head injury. If the victim has a seal-sucking chest wound, you might be able to cover it with a clean piece of plastic. This will prevent air from being sucked in and may even help to prevent a collapsed lung. Just make sure to monitor the patient carefully. If you notice increased shortness of breath after covering the wound, remove the seal and just apply direct pressure.
For Gunshot Wounds to the Abdomen
If you have an emergency trauma dressing or abdominal pad, use it to apply direct, firm pressure to the wound. Press hard enough that the victim’s skin bows beneath your hands, and don’t release the pressure until emergency medical assistance arrives. If the stomach or intestines were punctured, the victim is at a high risk of infection due to the threat of gastrointestinal fluid leaking into the abdominal cavity.
For Gunshot Wounds to the Arms or Legs
For a gunshot wound to a major extremity, pack the wound with compressed gauze and apply direct pressure. It’s best to use hemostatic gauze if you have it available, especially if the wound is hemorrhaging blood. Check every few minutes to see if the bleeding is under control. If uncontrolled bleeding continues, you might need to apply a tourniquet.
Applying a Tourniquet to Bleeding Limbs
Tourniquets are included with common bleeding control kits. For best results, you want a professional-grade tourniquet like the Combat Application Tourniquet® (also known as the C-A-T Tourniquet), SAM-XT tourniquet, or SWAT-T tourniquet. To apply either the C-A-T or SAM-XT tourniquet:
- Slip the tourniquet over the affected limb and position it at least 2 inches above the wound. If there’s a joint in the way, place it just above the joint.
- Turn the windlass until the bleeding stops, and then secure it in place.
- Write down the current time on the white label found on the tourniquet (or on the patient’s forehead). Emergency responders will need to know when the tourniquet was applied so that they can avoid keeping it on for longer than is safe.
- Monitor the patient and keep them comfortable while you wait for help to arrive.
To apply a SWAT-T tourniquet:
- Wrap the tourniquet once around the limb, at least 2 to 3 inches above the injury. Make sure the tourniquet is securely and firmly wrapped around the skin.
- Pull the strap tightly until the diamonds on the strap become squares.
- Continue wrapping the tourniquet around the limb as many times as you can.
- Tuck the end of the tourniquet underneath itself to hold it in place.
If you don’t have a commercial tourniquet and you’re unable to control the bleeding with applied pressure alone, you might—as a last resort—need to create an improvised tourniquet. This can be extremely dangerous when done incorrectly, so only do it if you have no other option. Refer to our guide to how to make an improvised tourniquet for more information.
Aftercare for Bullet Wounds
If you’re helping a bystander who has been injured by a gunshot wound, your responsibility ends when emergency services arrive. Just make sure that responders have all of the information they need, and let the professionals take care of the rest.
If you are the one who has suffered the injury, the proper aftercare is essential. Once you’ve been treated and released from the hospital, you’ll need to keep the wound dry for 24 to 48 hours. Then you’ll need to wash it at least twice every day with just water. Keep the wound covered with a nonstick bandage, and follow all guidance recommended by your doctor. Most importantly, make sure to take care of your mental health needs, as a gunshot injury is deeply traumatic.
The world is unpredictable, and you never know when an emergency will strike. That’s why preparedness is so important. Make sure you have a bleeding control kit and first aid kit available at all times, and know that you’re ready to respond if the unthinkable happens.