How to Treat a Gunshot Wound with Household Items
If an emergency strikes, do you know how to treat a gunshot wound with household items? Gunshot wounds are a leading cause of traumatic bleeding in the U.S. If that type of bleeding isn’t quickly brought under control, the victim’s chances of survival are nil.
But what if you don’t have a tourniquet or other life-saving equipment on hand? If you or someone around you suffers the effects of a gunshot wound, there are common items that you can use to control the bleeding while you wait for help to arrive.
The Basics of Treating a Gunshot Wound
Regardless of what types of items you have available, the essential steps are as follows:
- Get to a safe location
- Call for emergency services
- Locate the wound(s)
- Do whatever you can to stop the bleeding until emergency medical assistance arrives
Get to a Safe Place & Call 911
If you’re not in a safe location, the first step is to remove yourself—or the gunshot victim—from any immediate danger. If the firearm was discharged by accident, secure it and move it to a safe location.
As soon as it is safe to do so, call 911 and ask for emergency services. The emergency dispatcher may provide you with instructions over the phone; make sure to stay on the line and follow their instructions carefully as they summon the paramedics to your location.
Quick action here is critical, as immediate medical care is imperative to a gunshot victim’s recovery. Research shows that, to maximize the odds of survival, a gunshot victim should be in an ambulance within 10 minutes of being injured.
Household items: For this step, you’ll just need a smartphone if one is available. If another person is available to assist, have them call 911 while you treat the wound.
Locate the Wound
Locating the wound should be easy if you’re treating an injury that you yourself have sustained. However, if you’re treating another person who has been injured, you’ll need to determine the exact location of the wound and whether or not there are entrance and exit wounds.
A gunshot wound can result in considerable blood coverage, so locating the wound—or wounds—can require careful examination. As you examine the victim, you should also reposition them. If they’re conscious, position them in the standing or seating position that causes them the least discomfort. If they’re unconscious, place them on their side with their top leg at a right angle.
Household items: If you have powder-free latex gloves available, you should wear them while locating and treating the wound. If you don’t have a pair of gloves, you can use a clean plastic bag to cover your hand as you treat the victim.
Stop the Bleeding
While waiting for help to arrive, you have to do whatever you can to slow the blood loss. If you don’t have a bleeding control kit on hand, your goal should be to keep strong pressure on the wound.
Start by covering the wound, preferably with gauze or a large dressing or bandage, and maintain firm pressure to help encourage clotting. If the wound is bleeding heavily, you may have to apply significant force, such as by leaning on the wound with your knee.
Whether you’re treating yourself or someone else, there are a few important safety essentials to bear in mind:
- Avoid moving or repositioning limbs that have bullet wounds.
- Don’t move a person who has been shot in the back near the spine, or the neck, unless absolutely necessary.
- Don’t elevate a person’s legs if they’ve been shot; this can exacerbate chest or abdominal bleeding and also inhibit breathing.
Household items: If you don’t have gauze or dressings, that’s okay. Any amply sized cloth item will work, including a T-shirt. Sanitary pads can also be used to pack large wounds; just be sure to place a second piece of cloth over it before applying pressure.
Should You Treat a Gunshot Wound with a Homemade Tourniquet?
Tourniquets are the ideal solution for stopping traumatic bleeding in extremities (anywhere in the arms or legs). However, professional tourniquets are often difficult to come by in an emergency, and there’s a lot of debate as to whether it’s actually a good idea to use a makeshift tourniquet.
In most cases, homemade tourniquets are a bad idea. There are a few reasons for this:
- Tourniquets are only useful for upper and lower extremities (this is true of both professional and makeshift tourniquets). They won’t help you with a chest wound or other type of wound.
- Homemade tourniquets are best applied by trained emergency professionals who have had considerable practice with occluding blood flow; lay responders generally lack the expertise necessary to apply them properly.
- Homemade tourniquets have a high rate of failure.
- If used incorrectly, a homemade tourniquet can make an injury worse or lead to additional complications—including severe nerve and tissue damage and even amputation.
If you don’t have a professional tourniquet available, unless you are completely confident in your skills applying homemade tourniquets, it’s generally best to just apply direct pressure as firmly as you can. The only exception to this rule is if you’re completely unable to control the bleeding with direct pressure alone. Rapid blood loss can be fatal within minutes, so in those situations, the benefits of using a homemade tourniquet outweigh the risks.
If you absolutely must rely on a makeshift tourniquet, look for a material that doesn’t stretch too much, can be cut or ripped to be of suitable length, and is at least one to three inches of width to distribute even pressure. Never, ever use a thin material like a shoelace. Belts often tend to make a poor choice for tourniquets as they cannot be twisted to create the needed pressure and occlusion.
Make sure that the entire tourniquet rests flat against the skin. Wrap the tourniquet several times if you have enough material, and then knot it as tightly as possible. If you’re treating your own arm, you may need to use your free hand and teeth. Next, knot a pencil, stick or similar device on the outer layer of the tourniquet to use as a torsion device. Alternatively, the pencil or stick can be incorporated into your original knot, double knotting over the pencil or stick. Then twist the stick several times to tighten the tourniquet until the bright red bleeding stops. This will often be painful, and should completely cut off the distal pulse, but the best indicator of success is that the bleeding stops.
Remember, this should only be attempted in a life-or-death medical emergency involving rapid, uncontrolled blood loss. If preparedness is your goal, consider instead investing in a professional Stop the Bleed® Kit. It’s designed for the lay user and licensed by the Department of Defense. Each kit includes a tourniquet for upper and lower extremities, as well as gauze, dressing, and other life-saving essentials. The Intermediate and Premium kits even include chest seals to treat patients with penetrating chest wounds. For more information, refer to our guide to choosing the right bleeding control kit.
Bullet Wound Follow-Up Care
After emergency services have arrived, the bullet has been removed, and doctors have provided initial gunshot wound care, the proper aftercare is extremely important. If you are recovering after a gunshot injury, make sure to follow all of your doctor’s instructions. If you haven’t received specific instructions, consider the following general care tips:
- Keep the wound dry for at least 24 hours (your doctor may recommend 48 hours)
- After the first day, wash the wound at least twice daily with only water
- Cover the wound with petroleum jelly and a nonstick bandage
- Take any medications or antibiotics prescribed by your doctor
Finally, make sure not to neglect your mental health needs. A gunshot is a traumatic experience, and a trained mental health professional can help you to process the event and heal on a more personal level.