4 Ways to Sterilize Instruments (Excerpt from "Living Ready Pocket Manual: First Aid")by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

For this month’s posts, I’ve chosen some excerpts from my new book, Living Ready Pocket Manual: First Aid, that I think will especially interest my regular blog readers. If you’ve already bought the book, I’d be interested to hear what you think of these sections.

First up: Here at the blog, I’ve gone into a good bit of detail about treating wounds, but have you ever wondered when you need to sterilize the instruments and dressings you use?

In an emergency, in fact, it’s difficult to keep wounds from getting contaminated. Initially, the main purpose is to save a life, so that’s not so much of a problem, but the longer a wound stays contaminated, the more likely it is to get infected. So when you’ve stopped the bleeding, stabilized the situation, and cleaned the wound, now’s the time to start thinking about making sure the implements you use are sterile.

In my book, I give some tips on how to sterilize instruments and dressings on the run. Here’s the excerpt about instruments.

How to Sterilize Instruments

Unless you have a commercial autoclave and a power source, or some prepackaged sterile products, you’re going to have to make do with what you have and sterilize the best you can.

Before you sterilize, always clean any obvious debris off your instruments. Clean with soap and water or alcohol. Use a cloth or brush if needed.

Quick Methods for Sterilization

  • Heating the instrument. Hold the part that’s going to touch the injury over an open flame. If the handle is also metal, find something to hold the instrument with so you don’t burn your fingers. Heat until the metal turns red; that’s long enough. Then let the instrument cool, and you’re ready. If I have alcohol, I also like to dip the instrument in that just for good measure.
  • Using a disinfectant. If you don’t have fire and you’re in a hurry, you can wipe the instrument off with a clean cloth soaked in iodine, povidone-iodine (Betadine) or alcohol. No clean cloth? Dip the instrument in the solution and stir it for ten seconds.

Sterilization Methods that Take Longer

  • Boiling. This is a good method for larger instruments or those that might melt under the flame. Let the instrument soak in boiling water for 20 minutes.
  • Use a disinfectant for a longer amount of time. Soaking the instrument in disinfectant for 20 minutes is better than the wiping/dipping method.


Besides wound treatment, here are some of the other procedures you might want to use a sterile instrument for:

What about you? Have you ever tried to sterilize equipment in the field? How did it go?