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24 May 2022

Home first-aid kits: what's essential and how to get it for less

What you should have in a home first-aid kit, the products you don't need and how to save on home health essentials

Every household should have some first-aid essentials to hand for when accidents or illness strike.

Having the right kit can help you to act quickly when you need to treat minor illnesses, ailments or injuries in the home – or for more serious issues, to bide the time until emergency help arrives.

However, buying a pre-packed first-aid kit is unlikely to be the best option, as you may end up paying out for unnecessary items, lack others or find yourself short of handy essentials. 

We asked two pharmacists for their tips on which first-aid products are really useful, the ones you don't need, and how to build a first-aid kit that's tailored to you. Plus, we've looked into how to get what you need for less to help you compile your own first-aid kit on the cheap.

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1. Ready-made first-aid kits aren't always worth it

While they might come in a handy storage bag or box, shop-bought first-aid kits often contain supplies you're never likely to need, and not enough of the ones you do.

Buying an empty first-aid container case (or indeed, a cheap make-up/toiletries bag or lunch box that you can label) and filling it yourself means you can adapt it to your needs and lifestyle, and avoid paying for unnecessary extras.

Make sure it's easily identifiable as a first aid kit, and keep it out of the reach of small children.

First-aid kit essentials: what you need

  • Assorted waterproof plasters 
  • Absorbent dressings 
  • Roll of microporous tape
  • Tweezers 
  • Scissors
  • Antiseptic wipes 
  • Hydrocortisone cream 
  • Skin closure strips
  • Paracetamol tablets (and liquid for children, if applicable)
  • Crepe bandage
  • Triangular bandage (to make a sling)
  • Blister plasters
  • A thermometer

First-aid kit extras you might not need

Pre-made first-aid kits often contain things such as foil blankets, eye wash sachets, ice packs and burn gel – items you're either unlikely to have much use for at home, or for injuries that can be easily treated in other ways.

  • If you need to rinse out your eye, run fresh, clean water run over the eyeball for at least 20 minutes (you might, however, find an eye bath handy for this).
  • Ice cubes in a plastic bag or a packet of frozen peas will do just as well as a shop-bought ice pack if you're treating minor ailments like bumps and sprains at home.
  • NHS advice is to cool minor burns with cool or lukewarm running water for 20 minutes then covering with a layer of clingfilm, or you could use a dry dressing.
  • While a foil blanket might be useful if you're outdoor adventuring, it's unlikely to be needed in the home, where other things can keep you warm.

What's missing from pre-made first-aid kits?

You won't usually find hydrocortisone cream (mild steroid cream), antihistamines, tweezers (for getting out splinters) and pain relief medication.

You may also want to include anti-diarrhoea medication such as loperamide, says pharmacist Michael Line. Rehydration salts aren't usually necessary (aside from children or vulnerable/elderly people, who may become dehydrated more quickly) and you can make your own solution with a bit of sugar and salt dissolved in water.

First-aid kit contents there's not usually enough of

Putting a plaster on a girls arm

Some shop-bought first-aid kits only contain around 20 sticking plasters, which won't last long if you have kids and are constantly dressing cuts and scrapes (particularly as they are usually assorted sizes, so only a small handful will be a decent size).

Buying them separately also means you can choose which kind you prefer: for example, specific sizes or strips, hard-wearing or waterproof ones – or plasters to suit different skin shades. It also means you can avoid those that might be unsuitable, such as if you're allergic to fabric plasters.

Pharmacies and supermarkets often have multi-buy offers on these products, so you can buy an array of options to bulk out your selection and suit different scenarios.

Which plaster stays put the longest? We put plasters to the test

2. A bottle of water and an aspirin can have unexpected uses

A sealed bottle of water is an unexpected first aid kit essential.

A bottle of water can be handy, particularly if you're venturing outdoors, for taking medication, cleansing wounds or getting grit or dirt out of eyes.

If you're treating a cut or wound, the NHS recommends rinsing it under drinking-quality tap water or cleaning with sterile wipes, but Michael Line says that a bottle of water can be a handy alternative if these aren't around – for example, if you're administering first aid for grazed knees on the pavement.

Clare Morrison, Royal Pharmaceutical Society director for Scotland, also suggests including a 300mg aspirin tablet in your kit. This is sometimes recommended for people with a suspected heart attack (only when directed by a medical professional) to take while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

3. Check and re-stock your first-aid kit annually

This way, you can spot out-of-date medicines that need replacing, or gaps in your supply.

Tablets, creams and liquids If it has an expiry date, it's there for a reason, so whether it's a painkiller, hydrocortisone or antihistamine cream or even cough mixture, if they've expired you should replace them. This is because they might not be as effective or could even chemically change and cause harm. 

Plasters and bandages Adhesive bandages or the adhesive on plasters will get less sticky over time so they won’t work as well. If the seal has been broken – for example, the packaging on a plaster or surgical gloves – they shouldn’t be used as they'll no longer be sterile.

Set an annual date in your diary to audit what you've got in your kit to make sure nothing's missing and check that the components are in a good condition.

4. Don't buy big tubes of cream

Avoid buying large tubes of products that you're only likely to use small amounts of, such as hydrocortisone cream (which should only be used sparingly).

Bigger isn't always cheaper anyway, and may end up being wasteful. 

5. Prep a tailored first-aid kit for summer holidays or travel

It's worth taking some first-aid essentials on your travels, to avoid the hassle of finding and navigating a pharmacy for minor ailments when you're somewhere unfamiliar. 

Think about where you're going and what type of holiday you are having, as this will determine the kit that's most useful to have to hand. Useful summer beach holiday extras include:

  • Cooling gel A gel such as aloe vera gel can help to cool sunburned skin, instead of splashing out for a dedicated aftersun lotion.
  • Antihistamines Active ingredient chlorphenamine maleate is generally thought to be better for stings and bites than one-a-day formulations such as loratadine or cetirizine dihydrochloride. For topical relief, one of our pharmacists recommended a mild steroid cream (hydrocortisone) over topical antihistamine cream.
  • Insect repellent Those containing 50% DEET are most effective

Want to know what sun cream to buy? SPF, UVA, UVB: sun cream explained and how to buy the best

6. Opt for generic or own-brand supplies

When you’re stocking your first-aid kit, don't just check the pharmacy (we've often found cheaper prices at supermarkets and discount stores) and buy generic where you can. 

All licensed medications, including paracetamol and ibuprofen, are tightly controlled and will work safely and effectively whether you're buying branded or a cheaper generic version – the active ingredient is identical.

Keep an eye out for seasonal and multi-buy offers in the big chains. First-aid essentials such as plasters, wipes and tape are often included in these, and seasonal extras tend to cycle on and off offer in peak season too. 

How to save on hay fever medicine – where to buy for less and what you need