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How to Save Your Own Life

Professional wisdom for tackling 14 home and health emergencies when there’s no one else around


spinner image three vertical images next to each other; on left is a man coughing, center is someone on the phone, and right is woman outside holding cat
Illustration Collage: MOA; (Source: Steve Sanford)

Good or bad, by choice or not, more of us are living alone — some 27 percent of Americans 60 and older, according to the Pew Research Center.

And being on your own inevitably means being more self-reliant. Sure, you might not be Tom Hanks in Cast Away, having to perform your own dental surgery and relying on a volleyball for companionship. But you may find yourself facing some real catastrophe at home, without the immediate backup of a family member or roommate to help take control of the situation. We’ve identified some of the most familiar dangers facing people our age, and consulted with health and safety professionals, who gave us the inside scoop on how to handle these crises when there’s no one nearby to help. 



spinner image two side-by-side illustrations; hand dialing 911 in left image; bottles of pills and medical cards in right image
Illustrations: Steve Sanford

You’re having chest pains

Discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes or goes and comes back again, especially with activity, may signal a heart attack, says David B. Min, M.D., chief of cardiovascular medicine at Dartmouth Health. “This can feel like a dull ache, uncomfortable pressure, chest fullness or a squeezing sensation,” he explains. Jaw pain; shoulder, back or neck discomfort; nausea; and lightheadedness are also signs.

Call 911. “Don’t attempt to drive to the hospital, and don’t have someone else drive you,” says Douglas J. Hart, M.D., director of echocardiography at White Plains Hospital. After getting through to 911, describe your symptoms. “Chest pains” will get an ambulance racing to you immediately. Then you can dial a family member or friend to alert them to the situation.

Pop an aspirin. To get it into your bloodstream faster, chew or place under your tongue one 325-milligram aspirin or four 81-milligram baby aspirins. Aspirin (but no other painkillers) can help reduce clotting. (If you have been advised not to take aspirin or have had bad reactions to it, ask the EMTs before taking.)

Pull together your meds. It’s important not to exert yourself, but if you have your list of meds and your ID and insurance card nearby, grab them.

Unlock your front door. If you can get to it, Hart suggests unlocking and opening your front door to ease the way for paramedics to enter.

Sit down, preferably in a comfortable chair near the entrance of your home. Take slow, deep, calming breaths. The more you can control your natural instinct to panic, the better.



spinner image two side-by-side illustrations; left image shows person in house; right side shows a different person climbing in a window
Illustrations: Steve Sanford

There’s a burglar in your house

It’s rare for a criminal to enter a private home knowing someone is there, says Rebecca Edwards of SafeWise, an organization that helps people understand personal safety. “Burglars generally want to get in and out.” But if you’re at home:

Avoid confrontation. If you have a weapon or self-defense item like a bat or pepper spray, arm yourself, but don’t go looking for the intruder. That only puts you at greater risk of harm.

Treat it like a fire. If you’ve developed a plan to escape your home in case of a fire, use that plan now.

If you can’t get out, hide. “Don’t go exploring the house or wandering around,” Edwards says. “Hide in a safe place with a door that can be locked and, if possible, barricaded.”

Call for help. If you can do so quietly, call 911. Say your name and address, and that there’s someone in your home.

Stay put until help arrives. Once you’re in a safe space, don’t move from that spot even if you think the burglar may have left your home. Wait until police arrive and confirm that all is clear.

 

spinner image two side-by-side illustrations of man coughing and bending over with hand on table
Illustrations: Steve Sanford

You think you have COVID

Get tested. If you're coughing and hot to the touch, ou can take an at-home test, but these tests can have a high false-negative rate, says Linda Yancey, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston. Your doctor can order a PCR test, which gives a more accurate result; some drugstores offer drive-through testing.

Know the signs. Common indicators of COVID include fever and nasal congestion, as well as loss of taste or smell and shortness of breath.

Notify a friend or family member that you’re sick, and have them check on you daily. You’ll need to stay at home for five days or until your symptoms get better, so ask someone to drop off supplies or have a store deliver whatever you need.

Call your doctor and ask about prescription COVID treatments they can call in to your local pharmacy.

Deploy home remedies. Ibuprofen or acetaminophen, as well as cough drops and over-the-counter cough syrups, can help. Check with your physician about interactions with prescription meds you’re taking.

Try a saltwater gargle to calm a sore throat, “or just eat a large pickle,” says Yancey. “The salt will draw fluid out of the tissue and reduce inflammation.” If you experience confusion or difficulty breathing or have trouble staying awake, call 911.

 

spinner image two side-by-side illustrations; left shows bottom half of someone on floor; right shows person on floor with hand pressing on side
Illustrations: Steve Sanford

You’ve fallen and really, truly can’t get up

One in 4 older adults take a tumble each year. If you fall and you’re experiencing symptoms of a stroke (see “Is It a Stroke?,” below), get to the phone any way you can — whether by walking, rolling or crawling —and dial 911, says Sam Torbati, M.D., medical director of Emergency Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

If you’re not experiencing stroke symptoms, take a minute to regain your composure. Don’t try to stand up unless you’re absolutely certain you can do so safely, and take it slowly as you do. If you’re having trouble standing, try this:

Roll onto your side, push up to a side sitting position, and get on your hands and knees.

Crawl toward a piece of sturdy furniture. Once there, turn your body so that your stronger leg is next to the furniture.

Place your hands on the furniture for support; if you can, bend the knee closest to the furniture and plant that foot on the floor. Then push yourself up. 

Be prepared. Keep your cellphone handy. Several companies make shoulder holsters for cell-phones so you can quickly access yours in case of an emergency.

 

spinner image two side-by-side illustrations of man with one hand on side of face and one on forehead
Illustrations: Steve Sanford

Is it a stroke?

When something seems wrong with your vision, coordination or speech, a stroke should be your first concern, says Sandra Narayanan, M.D., a board-certified vascular neurologist and neuro­interventional surgeon at the Pacific Stroke & Neurovascular Center at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica.

Do not self-treat with aspirin and “wait it out” for symptoms to improve. Instead, use the FAST acronym to help you spot symptoms of a stroke: 

F: Face drooping (one side of face is numb; uneven smile)

A: Arm weakness (one or both arms are weak)

S: Speech difficulty (slurred speech)

T: Time to call 911. 

When it comes to stroke, the American Stroke Association warns that “every minute counts,” so the faster you can get to the hospital, the better. “While it’s a common instinct to call family and one’s primary care provider and/or drive oneself to the emergency room, it’s much safer to call 911 to be seen ASAP, and to avoid missing the opportunity to activate EMS before there is further neurological decline,” adds Narayanan.

 

spinner image three side-by-side illustrations; left is person's hand opening window; center is woman outside holding cat; right is woman outside on phone
Illustrations: Steve Sanford

You smell gas in your home

Most people will recognize the “rotten egg” odor associated with a gas leak, but you should also be aware of the sounds and sights of a leak. Daniel Lowry, spokesperson for Kentucky utilities LG&E and KU Energy, says that you may notice a “hissing or whistling sound coming from an appliance.”

Don’t turn on the lights! Your first instinct might be to investigate, but use a flashlight or your cellphone. “You do not want to turn on lights or start activating electrical switches, because that could create a spark,” Lowry says.

Open your doors and windows to immediately vent the area.

Get away, but not by car. Walk outside. Avoid getting in your vehicle, especially if it’s in the garage. “You don’t want to get in your car and start it, because that could also create a problem if there is a major leak. Go to a safe area. If it’s cold outside, go to a neighbor’s home.” Bring any pets with you.

Call the gas company, and then call 911 too. Err on the side of caution.

 

spinner image two side-by-side images; left shows spoon on table and part of steaming pot; right shows steam on a hand
Photo: Brent Humphreys

You’ve burned yourself with scalding water

Submerge the burn in cold water, either in a bowl or right under the faucet.

Don’t use ice. “This can cause more damage to the skin cells and surface,” warns Alexander Fortenko, M.D., assistant professor of clinical emergency medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Apply a burn gel, like Alocane or Neosporin Burn Relief Ointment, which can help prevent infection.

Head to the Emergency Room if the burn leads to blistering or if it’s on your hands, face or genital area. Keep in mind that stinging and discomfort the day after burning yourself are not unusual.

Watch for pus or redness around the burn area, which may be a sign of infection and should be treated by a medical professional. Any over-the-counter pain reliever will work to help manage burn pain.

 

spinner image two side-by-side illustrations; left is person on phone bundled up wearing coat and hat in dark house; right shows battery powered lamp
Illustrations: Steve Sanford

The power goes out!

Annual weather-related power outages have increased roughly 78 percent during the past decade. Most get resolved within hours, but an outage can last for days.

Grab your phone. If it’s dark when the power goes out, use your cellphone’s flashlight to guide you, says DeeDee Bennett Gayle, associate professor at the University of Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity. Then go looking for better lighting sources, like an actual flashlight.

Preserve your phone power. Immediately switch your cellphone to low-power mode. You’ll still be able to make and receive calls and texts—important in an emergency—and you can use the web browser to look up needed info or access your email. But the phone will shut down other functions to preserve power.

Check with your power company. One thing you should use the phone for is making a call to your power company. Power companies often have hotlines to report an outage and get info on estimated service restoration. Don’t assume that a neighbor has already called. The power company may also post service updates on its website, which you can check periodically with your phone.

Avoid fire and gas. Even if it’s cold out, don’t use a gas stove or oven to heat your home; that can cause carbon monoxide to build up. As for candles, use only the kind in fireproof holders that can’t tip over, and set them away from anything flammable.

Check your meds. If you have prescription drugs that require refrigeration, check how long they remain effective at room temperature, Bennett Gayle says. FDA.gov is a good resource.

Know when to leave. “Staying in a very hot or very cold house can be life-threatening,” Bennett Gayle says. If temperatures are extreme, or if you use a medical device that requires a power source, you’ll need to find shelter.

Create a “safe at home” kit:

  • Flashlight or battery-powered lantern (and batteries!).
  • Water. Aim for 2 gallons per person. Nonperishable food that doesn’t require heat to prepare, such as granola bars.
  • A portable charger (that you keep charged) to use as backup power for your phone.
  • NOAA Weather Radio with hand crank to keep abreast of storm situations.
  • Portable generator. If you live in a remote area, a portable generator can be a lifesaver, especially in the event of snowstorms.



spinner image two side-by-side illustrations; left is person with laundry basket next to dryer; right is person's hand touching dryer and getting shocked
Illustrations: Steve Sanford

You just got shocked by an appliance!

Large appliances like washing machines often plug into high-voltage outlets, says Fortenko. If you get shocked:

Let go. That may sound obvious, but AC currents can cause muscle spasms that make it harder to loosen your grip in the moment. Cover burns with gauze as needed.

Call 911 or yell for help. A major shock is often followed by loss of consciousness, paralysis, difficulty speaking and confusion.

Call your doctor even if you’re not exhibiting any concerning symptoms.

 

spinner image three side-by-side illustrations; left is hand holding cloth on other hand; center is hand under running water; right is cut on finger
Illustrations: Steve Sanford

You’ve cut your finger deeply while slicing veggies

Rinse your cut. “Tap water is fine; don’t worry about it being sterile,” says Weill Cornell’s Fortenko. “What helps prevent infection is the pressure of the water used to wash out the wound.”

Apply firm, direct pressure to the wound. If the bleeding continues apace, switch to applying pressure to the area an inch or two below the cut instead of directly on it, says Fortenko.

Make a tourniquet as a last resort if the bleeding is extreme. Wrap a rubber band or hair tie around the base of your finger, but don’t leave this on for longer than five minutes, as it can lead to nerve damage. If your cut is this bad, go to an ER immediately.

 

spinner image blurry image of dog
Photo: Brent Humphreys

You’re struck by a wave of vertigo

Look for signs of stroke. If the wave of vertigo is so bad you can barely get to your feet, and If sudden, severe and unprovoked vertigo is accompanied by stroke symptoms (see “Is It a Stroke?” above) or by nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, headache or neck pain, call 911 immediately, says Narayanan of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute.

But relax. Isolated vertigo symptoms are usually not stroke related, Narayanan says. “This could be due to conditions like an inner ear problem, an aftermath of a head injury or a medication you are taking,” she explains.

Get to a chair. If you feel vertigo come on suddenly, stay seated and wait it out. If you’re on your feet already, get to a chair; move slowly, brace yourself against a wall or counter, and avoid excessive bending to minimize falls.

Take some deep breaths to calm yourself, as anxiety can worsen your symptoms. Some people find relief by lying still in a quiet room with the lights dimmed until the feeling passes.

 

spinner image two side-by-side illustrations; left shows person with hives on face; right shows hand sticking epinephrine pen into leg
Illustrations: Steve Sanford

You suddenly break out in hives and can’t breathe after a meal

If you have dizziness or trouble breathing, call 911 right away, says F. Ida Hsu, M.D., an assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine. Don’t try to drive yourself to the hospital or urgent care. If you are already driving when this occurs, pull over to a safe space and call for help.

Reach for the auto-injector. If you have known food allergies and have been prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector, now is the time to use it.

Move slowly. If you need to move about the house to locate a phone or your auto-­injector and there’s no one around to help you, get up slowly and use a wall or counter to support yourself, says Hsu.

Go to the ER anyway. Even if you do have an auto-injector and use it successfully, you should still go to the emergency room. Epinephrine can wear off, and you should be treated by a medical professional.

Calm the reaction. If your symptoms are mild (say, just a few hives) and you have no known food allergies, try taking an over-the-counter antihistamine such as cetirizine (Zyrtec), loratadine (Claritin) or fexofenadine (Allegra) to see if that helps ease your symptoms. Avoid medicines with diphenhydramine (Benadryl), which can make you drowsy—not a good idea if you’re alone and need to monitor your symptoms.

 

spinner image three side-by-side illustrations; left is box of bandages, center is bandage over man's eye; right is hand using cell phone
Illustrations: Steve Sanford

Something hard just got into your eye

Don’t rub it! That might be your first instinct, but rubbing can lead to serious eye damage. If you feel that something is in your eye:

Blink repeatedly to naturally flush it out with your tears. You can rinse the eye with water or saline solution. But don’t try to remove the foreign object yourself, as you could cause further damage in the process.

Apply a cold compress to the surrounding tissue to reduce swelling, but refrain from applying pressure directly on the eye.

Go to the ER if you continue to feel that something is lodged in your eye. If you experience ongoing pain, loss of vision, bleeding or discharge from the eye, a cut or torn eyelid, or impaired eye mobility, or if the pupils of your eye are different sizes, head to the ER or call your ophthalmologist.

Cover it. In the event that your eye has been punctured, don’t rinse, touch or press on the actual eye area. Place a protective shield, like a large gauze pad, over the eye, taping it to the surrounding bones, and call 911.

Don’t take aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), which can make bleeding worse. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is fine.

When in doubt, get checked out by your ophthalmologist, since even mild blows to the eye can cause injuries like retinal detachment.

 

spinner image three side-by-side illustrations; left is person in distance knocking on door; center is woman with cell phone; right is hand locking door
Illustrations: Steve Sanford

A stranger is knocking on your door—and won’t go away

The sudden pounding of a stranger at your door can send waves of panic through your body. Follow what’s likely to be your first instinct and avoid opening the door to a stranger—even if that person is wearing a service uniform or claims to be injured and in need of assistance, says Tim Rader, senior director of product development at ADT North America.

Make sure your whole home is secure. Don’t just focus on the front door, where the person is. “Check the locks on all your doors and turn on all your outside lights,” says Peter Forth, director of operations for Second Sight Training Systems, a personal and corporate training organization.

Shift your mindset. Avoid the impulse—even though it’s polite—to respond to someone face-to-face. “The first thing we talk about in personal safety training is that if you didn’t ask for someone to be there, you don’t want them there,” Forth says. “So don’t open the door, or you’re creating an opportunity for someone to harm you.”

Involve others. “Call a trusted safety contact [relative or neighbor], and keep them on the phone with you as you go about assessing the situation and communicating without opening the door,” Rader says.

Talk through a locked door. If the person claims to need help, tell them you’ll call 911. If they claim to be at your home on official business, ask them to have their office call you. If they claim to need a signature for a package you don’t remember ordering, tell them you can pick it up at the post office or shipping center. For anyone else, just ask them to leave.

If they refuse to leave, take action. “Call 911 and set off your panic alarm if you have one,” Forth says. “It can take four or five minutes or more for the police to get there, and a lot of bad things can happen in four minutes. So until someone shows up, you are your first responder. Do whatever you can to make it uncomfortable for them to remain there.”

Consider a doorbell camera. Doorbell cameras have built-in microphones and speakers that let you see, hear and talk with the person at the door through your smartphone. That can make it easier to resist the urge to open the door.

 

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