Even the most sure-footed among us have clumsy days that lead to some injuries at home. But the box of Band-Aids and expired antiseptic you've got kicking around are unlikely to help. That's where a first aid kit comes in.
A good quality kit should contain all the supplies you need to treat common household injuries such as lacerations, fractures and burns. But finding a well-stocked kit can be tricky when there are lots of manufacturers and retailers selling home or family kits that range from $25–170.
Our guide covers everything to look for in a first aid kit so you don't wind up getting stung by one of the cheaper options, especially in an emergency. After all, every home needs to have supplies on hand to treat minor injuries, especially if you have kids.
In short: yes. Not only is it important to have medical supplies on hand, a first aid kit keeps everything together in a portable package that's easy to grab when someone gets hurt.
But remember, first aid kits aren't a cure. They're designed to treat injuries, not heal them. While some minor or moderate injuries can be dealt with at home using the contents of a first aid kit, more serious ones usually require a trip to hospital. A good first aid kit will help reduce the impact of the injury while you're en route to proper medical care.
You can find a variety of first aid kits designed for standard consumer use or more specialised environments. Standard kits start with small, simple options that are designed to be taken on picnics, for example, all the way up to extensive ones designed to treat a range of injuries in large households.
Specialty kits include things like sports, remote work, hiking, marine and travel, which often have unique cases designed to fit in backpacks or vehicles.
Our test focuses on first aid kits designed for home use which tend to be widely available. This includes kits that are advertised as suitable for home use, even if the product name says otherwise (e.g. workplace).
Availability depends on where you shop. Chemists, supermarkets and outdoor supply stores typically sell home and outdoor kits, whereas manufacturers, speciality retailers and emergency medical organisations like St John Ambulance and the Red Cross have a range of options.
What's the best place to buy a first aid kit?
We've found that specialty retailers, which mostly operate online, have the best selection of kits, whereas supermarkets and chemists only tend to have a couple of kits on their shelves. It's also worth shopping around as most retailers have different ideas of what constitutes a home kit.
Is there a standard for first aid kits?
The 'Portable first aid kits for use by consumers' standard (AS 2675) was penned back in 1983 and not only has it never been updated, it recently lapsed. This means Australia no longer has a standard for first aid kits but many of the recommendations in AS 2675 are still relevant today. So while we don't test first aid kits to the standard, we still use the inventory list as a guide.
Customising your kit
Though it's important to keep the essential items, you can also add anything else you feel is necessary to your first aid kit. This is where a larger kit will come in handy as it will likely have space for more supplies.
In addition to adding items that you feel are essential, it's important to consider the environment that your kit will be used in. For example, Health Direct suggests multiplying the included items by the number of people in your home and adding thicker bandages if you have kids who play sport in the yard.
Making sure the contents are safe
The idea that a first aid kit could harm the user seems like the definition of irony, but it can happen. If you have allergies, particularly skin allergies that are contact triggered, make sure the materials won't aggravate your condition. Gloves, for example, could be an issue if the kit uses latex instead of nitrile.
Hard plastic and soft, durable fabrics are the two main materials used to make cases for home first aid kits. Each has its pros and cons, but this is secondary to the included equipment.
A hard plastic case first aid kit.
Hard cases look like little suitcases with a handle, hinged lid and clasps to lock the kit. The plastic adds a degree of protection and some splash resistance, and most cases have multiple layers with compartments to help you organise the equipment. Some kits let you lift each layer out while others affix them to the kit to open like a staircase.
However, the clasps can be difficult to open and close and you may have trouble accessing some contents if the layers are bolted in. Flimsy plastic can also be difficult to open and close.
Soft, durable fabric
A soft case first aid kit.
Soft cases are the more common option and give the manufacturer much more flexibility when it comes to organising the contents. They all open and close with a zipper, but the exterior and interior vary depending on the quality and size of the kit.
For example, it's not uncommon for smaller, basic kits to lack compartments, with all the equipment rolling around together. This can make unpacking and repacking difficult, especially when items shift around during transit. But larger, better quality kits often have compartments that fold out for easy access.
Durability and water resistance really depend on the type of material used but cheaper kits aren't likely to provide much protection. Larger kits can also be a bit bulkier than plastic cases, kind of like a rucksack.
Though a first aid kit's contents are the most important thing to consider, there are a couple of other points you need to keep in mind while shopping around.
This can help you quickly identify where specific items are in the kit.
Damage resistance claims
Look for kits that claim to provide protection against damage and the elements. Though most home kits are likely to stay in a cupboard indoors, this is still worth the extra investment to make sure the contents are in good condition when you need them.
Many kits come with additional items that aren't considered essential but are still useful to have on hand. Burn gels, cotton buds, splinter probes and dressing packs were common additions to kits in our test, but you could also include a thermometer, eye drops and medication to treat nausea, headaches and diarrhoea.
First aid training is best, but an instruction manual that covers treatment for common home injuries is useful too.
Size and weight
This is worth keeping in mind if you have trouble handling heavy or bulky items.
While most first aid kits don't claim to be waterproof, water resistance is an important feature that can protect the contents.
Buying one of these kits is a great first step but there are a few more things you need to do in order to fully utilise, and maintain, the equipment.
Complete a first aid course
Getting trained up in first aid means you'll know exactly what to use when treating an injury and how to use the equipment effectively. This can also help you identify items, or first aid practices, that may have become outdated since the kit was put together.
Review the layout and contents
By understanding where things are in the kit, you can quickly and easily locate the items required for treatment. So spend some time memorising where certain supplies are when you bring home a new kit.
Remember to regularly check the expiration dates as well to make sure the items are still safe to use. You should also regularly check the condition of sterile packaging (of dressings, for example) as this can delaminate over time and render the contents non-sterile.
Hold onto used packaging
You'd be amazed at the variety of bandages available. Hold onto any used packaging after treating an injury as the product code will help you find the same item, or a suitable substitute, when restocking your kit. An empty packet will also remind you to restock the kit.
Speak to the patient
Before treating someone, ask if they have any known allergies or medical conditions. This can help you avoid using medical supplies that may cause a reaction.
Used medical supplies need to go in the bin but most charities will accept unused items that are still sealed. Expired contents such as medicines and creams gels can be taken to your local pharmacy where most will have a safe disposal bin.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.