Essential first aid tips for protesters

How to dress for success, stanch bleeding, and avoid COVID-19 while marching.
Black lives matter protesters.

Stay hydrated and prepared for anything, even in the most peaceful of protests. Julian Wan on Unsplash

Even if you’re planning on attending a peaceful protest, you should never assume you won’t encounter dangerous situations while exercising your first amendment rights.

We chatted with nurses and healthcare providers across the country to see what you absolutely need to keep on you and keep in mind as you head out to protest. Here are a few tips for keeping your cool in a potentially fiery environment.

Prepping and getting dressed

Before you even step outside your front door, there are a few things you need to do. First off, says Richmond-area ICU nurse Emily Cramer, is to establish a group of people you plan to stick with. You and your protesting buddies should designate a time and place to meet up if you get separated, so you can check in on one another before heading back home.

This also comes in handy if you ever need to escape a dangerous situation. Knowing where the exits are and having a few ideas of safe places to retreat to if things get out of hand can help you stay cool if things get chaotic.

You also want to pick your outfit wisely. Keep your body covered in case of any tumbles or run-ins with harmful chemicals, like those in tear gas or pepper spray. Even if it’s boiling hot, a protest is not the place for shorts or tank tops. Try to layer light fabrics that cover as much of your skin as possible, as you might do on a hike where sunburn and ticks were a concern. On top of that, you want shoes that you can safely run in. “Nothing fancy, all practical,” says Jeanne Pfeiffer, a nursing professor at the University of Minnesota.

You might even consider going above and beyond by having gloves or protecting your eyes. If you can’t break out your old swimming or lab goggles, then even regular glasses might be better than nothing, says Stephen Ferrara, an associate professor of nursing at Columbia. And avoiding contact lenses and make-up is key if you think that tear gas might make an appearance.

Of course, there’s the looming issue of COVID-19, and gathering in big groups to shout together gives the virus a chance to find new hosts. Wear your mask, like you would if you were going on the subway or to the grocery store. One public health expert advised that you should have your signs do as much of the talking as possible so you can save your breath—and keep other people from breathing it in.

Water, water, water!

Do not leave the house without water. You need to stay hydrated if you’re going to be marching around in the streets for hours. Even if you’re stressed about not having a bathroom break, drinking water is pretty much the only thing keeping you from getting heat exhaustion or potentially deadly heatstroke, says Vickie Southall, a professor of nursing at UVA. Heat exhaustion shows up in the form of sweating and a slow pulse, but heatstroke does the opposite. If someone is showing signs of heatstroke, with dry skin and a rapid heartbeat, get them to medical help stat.

Clean water is also a versatile first aid tool in its own right. In the case of a burn, the first thing you want to do is chill it with water before you apply coverings. In the case of tear gas or pepper spray entering your eyes, you can count on rinsing water to help get those chemicals out. Some people swear by milk or baby shampoo to help with washing out tear gas chemicals, but the science behind such methods is still iffy. Better to just stick with what we know, Southall says.

Water is also crucial once you get home. If you come in contact with tear gas, make sure to take a 20 minute cold shower to protect your skin, and keep your hands off of your face until you’ve thoroughly cleaned up. You can read more about how to deal with tear gas here.

What to do if you spot blood

Hopefully, you won’t bump into a situation where bleeding gets out of hand. But there’s no harm at all in knowing the basics. Beth Quatrara, a clinical nurse specialist and a Stop The Bleed instructor, says the first step is to identify the source of the blood. You might have to remove a piece of clothing or turn someone over to find the injury, she says.

If there’s significant bleeding, which could mean blood pooling on the sidewalk or squirting out of a wound, start by applying pressure, she says. Two hands should be placed just above the wound. The next step would be to stuff the injury, she says, which can be done with just about anything. A shirt, a sock, or even sanitary pads can come in handy in a pinch. Don’t stress about infection at this point; just try to get the bleeding to stop.

Something to not get creative with is a tourniquet. If you’re trained and have a proper tourniquet with you, then go for it. But for those of us without the experience, it’s best not to experiment with belts or shoelaces. If applied incorrectly, Quatrara says, a makeshift tourniquet can actually worsen an injury, and therefore cause more severe bleeding.

Smaller, less acute bleeds will benefit from a spritz of clotting spray, which you can get at your pharmacy. If a scrape is bleeding a little but isn’t worth ending your night over, Cramer says, a spray can provide a quick fix that requires less fumbling than a bandage.

If you suspect someone in your group has a broken bone, it’s essential they not try and carry on despite the pain. A broken bone can rupture an artery if you move it around too much, causing a more life-threatening injury. Quatara suggests stabilizing any potentially broken bones with what you can get your hands on—even the yardstick holding up your sign—and getting help from a medic ASAP. Read more on how to assess and set a broken bone here.

No matter how big or small their first aid needs are, it’s important that you stay aware of potential danger to yourself while you try to help others. If someone gets hurt in front of you, try to move them to one of the safe meeting locations you’ve scouted out for your group before you settle down to help.

“That’s always the first thing for emergency stuff, is to make sure you’re safe,” says Southall. “If you’re not safe, or if getting to the injured person is going to put you in an unsafe place, that’s going to be two hurt people instead of one.”

CPR and COVID-19

In the unlikely scenario that someone at the protest goes into cardiac arrest (learn more about signs to look out for here), you may need to perform CPR. With COVID-19 floating about, it’s important to note that experts say you don’t have to do mouth to mouth. The American Heart Association suggests using chest compressions on their own, and calling for help.

If you’re trained in CPR but need a quick refresher on how to do it, there’s loads of information and videos out there that might be worth a peek before you head out. But if you haven’t done any first aid training, don’t try to learn on the fly—just call for professional help. You could very easily end up doing more harm than good, and the chaos of a crowded protest is not the right place to try to master chest compressions for the first time.

At the end of the day, the best way to stay safe at a protest is to pay attention to your surroundings and keep your wits about you. Being prepared for danger, however unlikely it is, will help you stay cool under pressure.