Please note that this information does not qualify you as an official first aider, and Virtual College advises calling 999 in the first instance at the scene of an emergency.
This material and any associated assessments do not constitute a qualification or accreditation as an official first aider. All content provided is for general information only.
Anyone seeking a first aid qualification should check out our First Aid e-learning course.
Bandages are an essential part of every first aid kit and can be helpful for many everyday accidents and injuries. However, bandages and dressings are only effective when used properly.
Some bandage types are designed for a specific purpose, for example, triangular bandage slings for supporting broken arms, or roller bandages for dressing wounds. These types of bandages are ineffective when used for other purposes, which could affect recovery.
It's vital that people understand the different types of bandages and dressings available, and how they should be used when administering basic first aid. In this article, we describe some of the most common types of bandages and dressing, along with how to apply different types of bandages and the kinds of injuries they’re best suited for.
Roller bandages are the type of bandage you're most likely to need if you're treating a cut or scrape. They're usually made from lightweight and breathable cotton gauze and are used to hold other dressings against wounds.
However, roller bandages can also be made from crepe, which gives them more elasticity so they can be used to support joints or apply pressure to an open wound to stem the flow of blood. This makes them very useful in emergency situations.
Roller bandages will typically look like tightly rolled white cotton cylinders when you're looking for them in a first aid kit, usually inside a sterile plastic packet.
To apply a roller bandage to an open wound, first apply a suitable pad or dressing to the area. Then, hold the rolled-up end of the roller bandage up with one hand, and begin wrapping the loose end around the dressing with the other, starting at the bottom and working your way up.
Add just a few centimetres more of the bandage at a time to keep it as tight as possible and ensure the appropriate level of pressure is applied to the wound. Each wrap-around needs to overlap at least one-third of the previous wrap. When you reach the top of the area, wrap the bandage around a few extra times before securing and cutting away any excess.
If you're using a roller bandage to apply pressure to a limb or to support a joint, follow the same method, but get the patient to bend their limb a few times beforehand to keep the blood flowing to the area.
Triangular bandages are an extremely versatile type of bandage. They are usually made from a single sheet of thick cotton or calico, typically used for making a triangular sling to support soft tissue injuries or immobilise broken bones.
In an emergency, you could also use a triangular bandage to create a makeshift tourniquet, wrapping one around a pad or dressing to apply pressure to a wound if no roller bandages are available.
In your first aid kit, a triangular bandage will be packaged as a square, possibly with accompanying safety pins, which you can use to make a sling.
Use a visual guide such as this to make sure your sling is fashioned correctly. For lower limb injuries, simply use the triangular bandage as if it was a larger roller bandage. But for arm or hand injuries such as broken bones, either an arm sling or an elevation sling will be needed, depending on whether the flow of blood to the affected body part needs restricting.
Tubular bandages are not as versatile as roller bandages and triangular bandages, but they are useful for providing compression, and immobilising or supporting knee and elbow joints. They can also be used to hold a dressing against a limb.
This type of bandage is essentially an elasticated tube made of thick gauze, with different widths available. In your first aid kit, it will look like a long ring or roll of bandage which you can cut to size to fit the required area.
To support a joint, simply slide the tubular bandage along the body part you are trying to treat. However, if you want to use the bandage to hold a dressing tightly, put that in place first, asking the patient to hold it until you have slid the tubular bandage up to cover the pad. Take care to ensure you do not displace the dressing or contaminate the wound while doing this.
A sterile dressing consists of an un-medicated pad that is attached to a conforming bandage. They are used in situations where a wound needs dressing with something to absorb any exudates, which is what the un-medicated pad is for. You should use a sterile dressing if you want to keep a wound clear of infection en route to receive proper medical treatment, especially if it is bleeding freely.
To begin applying a sterile dressing, clean and dry the area around the wound as much as possible. Take hold of the bandage that is attached to the pad, and then place the pad on top of the wound, ensuring that the whole thing is covered.
Wrap the short end of the bandage around the limb and the pad, and then wrap the longer end of the bandage around in the opposite direction. Tie the ends of the bandage over the pad tightly so that it is secure but isn’t hurting the injured person.
An adhesive dressing is an absorbent pad that is surrounded with adhesive, helping it to stick to the skin when applied. It allows the pad to remain on a wound without having to secure it in place with a bandage, which can be good for smaller wounds that still need something absorbent over them.
Plasters are a kind of adhesive dressing, but you can also get more heavy-duty versions that are larger and have a thicker, more absorbent pad attached. They come in a range of different sizes, so larger first aid kits may contain several kinds of adhesive dressings.
If you’re dressing a wound with a plaster then it will need replacing frequently, usually whenever the plaster gets wet or dirty. Larger adhesive dressings are designed to stick to the skin for longer and may irritate the skin or sting a bit when being removed.
Before applying an adhesive dressing, make sure that the wound has been cleaned and dried as much as possible. Unwrap the adhesive dressing and then peel back the strips protecting the adhesive with the pad facing down. Avoid touching the exposed pad with your fingers.
Place the pad on the wound so that it is covering the whole area, and then peel back the strips so that the adhesive is fully exposed. Stick the adhesive edges to the skin, making sure that the dressing is pulled tightly against the skin so that there aren’t any gaps.
Non-adhesive dressings contain the same absorbent pad as their adhesive counterpart but don't have any surround that sticks to the skin when applied. They’re used when you want to avoid potentially damaging or irritating the skin by removing an adhesive dressing, or if the wound is only lightly exuding a substance.
You apply a non-adhesive dressing by holding the pad in place and then securing it to the skin with retention tape or microporous tape. This won’t hold the dressing in place for as long as proper adhesive, so this approach is best used if a wound is quite shallow or if you’re going to dress it properly after a short while, and are just trying to keep it clear from infection in the meantime.
If you’re in a situation where bandages are required for first aid, you should be able to get the bandages or dressing you need from your first aid kit. The majority of first aid kits have at least one of every type of bandage and dressing that we have listed above, so you should be able to find what you need here.
Always ensure that the bandage you’re using is taken out of a sealed packet so that you can ensure it's clean and has been sterilised. Using a bandage that was loose in a first aid kit or came from unsealed packaging carries a risk of infection, and should be avoided.
It’s important to make note of the items that you take from a first aid kit if you’re dressing a wound, as these will need to be replaced as soon as possible. If items in a first aid kit are not replaced, there might be a first aid situation in the future that requires a bandage or dressing that isn’t available, which may impact the injured person who won’t be able to have their wound dressed correctly.
Different types of bandages are made from different materials. Roller and triangular bandages are often made out of a type of woven fabric, whilst other bandages and dressings are often made out of plastic or latex rubber, which makes them more waterproof.
Two of the most common approaches to sterilising bandages are sterilising with pressured, saturated steam or sterilising with ionising radiation, or ‘y rays’. Adhesive bandages and dressings are also often sterilised by Ethylene Oxide Gas sterilisation, as steam sterilisation might impact the effectiveness of the adhesive.
Bandages should be changed as soon as they become dirty, whether this is from the wound exuding or external material. Keeping on a dirty bandage can slow the healing process and potentially infect a wound, so this may need to be done at least once a day.
You should also change a bandage and reapply a fresh one if you remove it to clean a wound. Reapplying a used bandage also increases the likelihood of infection, so you should only dress a clean wound with a new, sterilised bandage or dressing.
While this guidance may help in an emergency, it is always important to call 999 immediately if someone is suffering from severe bleeding that can be stopped by a dressing or bandage. Broken bones may also be kept from further damage by a bandage, but should always be seen by a medical professional after emergency first aid so that they can be properly treated.
If you’d like to learn more about first aid and the kinds of scenarios that require bandages and dressing, you can check out our full range of health and safety courses that include a range of different resources for online first aid training.