Statistics compiled by the National Safety Council show that each year nearly 13 million children suffer preventable injuries serious enough to require medical attention. Yet too often, the medicine cabinet holds four brands of toothpaste but nothing for a sting or scald. Only after an accident or onset of illness does a panicky hunt begin for items to clean, cure and comfort.
Medical experts say that while a wisely stocked, convenient and orderly first-aid kit may not fully treat a health crisis, its value is in helping to limit pain and complications until a doctor's examination.
"It's idiotic not to have one," says Theodore Tyberg, a cardiologist at New York Hospital who helps patients set up kits for home and travel.
Beverly Hoover, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, says: "Cost is no excuse. And you don't need to be a medical student to put a good one together."
What should a thorough kit contain? Experts agree that consumers should not assume that any kit, even one bought in a surgical supply store, is complete or that the contents are necessarily safe.
Packaging differences can be confusing. Fancy kits marketed for boaters, campers or hikers may be identical to a generic home kit. And sizes range from wallet to attache case. So priorities must be clear. Is portability, say in a diaper or school bag, important? Do individual doses of ointments make more or less sense than full-size quantities?
Most often, a prepackaged kit will contain much of what you should have. But some items typically in kits are held in disfavor these days. Hydrogen peroxide, not long ago the most popular wound cleanser, "can damage tissue as it's bubbling dirt out," says Charles DeGaetano of New York City's Emergen- cy Medical Service. Items like tourniquets require expertise; unskilled users can cause a loss of limb or fatally infect the victim's bloodstream.
Skeptically examine the label, which typically says a kit contains perhaps 200 items. "Be careful that most of what you're getting isn't just a million and one adhesive strips in a million and one sizes, and tiny samples and droplets of everything else," Mr. DeGaetano says. Helpful staples, yes. But far from a MASH unit. In addition, know that a lot of what's in some kits may never be used or will expire before they might be needed. Do not let a boast of scissors or tweezers be a deciding factor in paying more. In most kits, they're little better than toys. Buy good efficient instruments separately.
Other extras depend upon household needs. Children need more adhesive bandages, while an elderly person might need ammonia salts. So, a kit you build from scratch may or may not be more economical. Bought a la carte, costlier name-brand items are no better than generic ones. "If you're bleeding, it won't matter whose name is on the bandage," says Dr. Palmo Pasquariello, a Manhattan pediatrician.
Nearly all commercial kits contain basic pamphlets on first aid. Some kits meet American Red Cross standards and are often for sale at fund-raising activities through the organization's 2,700 chapters. Those made by Johnson & Johnson and by First Aid Only are among those that meet the criteria. All hold gauze pads bathed in iodine, antibacterial cream and alcohol, gauze stretch bandages, first-aid cream and antiseptic wipes.
First Aid Only, based in Vancouver, Wash., packages kits in 40 styles that are sold at drug and office supply stores, lumberyards and auto repair shops. The pocket-size "Personal Pack" and the children's "Ow-wee Pack," each with 29 items (of which 18 are dTC adhesive strips), and "Sting Aid Pack," with 25 items (11 adhesive strips), are priced at $3, but discount stores often sell them for half that.
The comprehensive kit of 129 items ($25, often found for $20) contains gauze dressing pads (18), breathable, fabric adhesive bandages (52), an ammonia inhalant, latex gloves (disease barriers), "instant ice" compress, iodine, alcohol and antibacterial pads, eye pads, finger splints and, yes, scissors and tweezers. Versions with flashlight, a survival blanket and flares cost about $10 more.
Johnson & Johnson, based in New Brunswick, N.J., makes three popular kits at $5 to $12.
The New York Baby Proofing Co., 476 Columbus Ave. (83rd Street), carries seven kits.
Its best seller, said Tony Simnowski, a store owner, is the "Boo Boo and Comfort Kit," $35, made by Quality Kids Products in Santa Rosa, Calif.; (707) 527-1727 for direct orders. It holds generous bottles and tubes of antibiotic cream, calamine lotion, acetaminophen elixir, Ipecac syrup, tape and gauze pads, an "instant ice" compress, fever strips and cotton. Tweezers and scissors are a bit better than in the other kits. Animal motifs adorn the graduated toddler-style medicine spoon and adhesive bandages. Ignore the hydrogen peroxide.
Finally, the best first-aid kits are not meant to be portable emergency rooms. "They are there for acute issues," Dr. Pasquariello says. "Let an ambulance do the rest."
FIRST AID SUPPLIES
According to the American Red Cross, a complete first-aid kit should include the following:
* Gauze pads and roller gauze (assorted sizes)
* Cold pack
* Plastic bags
* Disposable gloves
* Band-Aids (assorted sizes)
* Hand cleaner
* Small flashlight and extra batteries
* Scissors and tweezers
* Triangular bandage
* Antiseptic ointment
Include personal items, such as medications and emergency phone numbers. Check the kit regularly. Make sure flashlight batteries work and check expiration dates. Remember that kits can be designed for specific activities, such as hiking and boating.