Maybe you’ve been looking forward all year to the festivities of December — your family is coming, there are parties every week, and eggnog is finally back on the grocery store shelves. But the holidays aren’t all sugar plums and presents; with the season comes a rise in visits to the emergency room.
The epidemic of holiday-related injuries is so prevalent — the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated 15,000 holiday decorating-related injuries in 2012 — that even the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released a list of Holiday Health and Safety Tips.
Troy Madsen, MD, an emergency physician at the University of Utah Health, pointed out the most common injuries and how to prevent them.
Winter & snow-related injuries
According to Madsen, the most common injuries seen in the ER this time of year are from motor vehicle accidents. While these kinds of accidents occur all year round, adding snowy or icy conditions and a rise in people traveling around the holidays brings the rate of accidents even higher. With motor vehicle accidents comes a whole spectrum of injuries ranging from broken bones and lacerations to head and abdominal injuries.
And snow isn’t just a problem for driving — shoveling snow can also be dangerous to your health. “We see a lot of back injuries from people shoveling snow,” said Madsen. “Around the holidays we get the first big snowstorms of the year. People haven’t tried to lift heavy snow in nine months and will tweak their backs.”
Beyond the back injuries, Madsen has occasionally seen shoveling-related heart attacks in people who have overexerted themselves. Maybe it’s best to hand the shovel off to the neighbor boy for a few bucks.
And don’t think you’re safe from injury if you ditch the shovel for the snow blower. Sometimes heavy snow gets stuck inside the snow blower and blocks the blade; even if the snowblower is turned off, the blade is still under a lot of tension and will continue spinning once it is unblocked.
“When you turn the snow blower off, you think you’ll be fine sticking your hand in there to pull the snow out.” But Madsen has seen sliced and lacerated hands and fingers from people making this mistake. Instead of using your fingers, Madsen suggests using a stick to remove the snow once the snow blower is turned off. Some snow blowers even come with a small shovel for this purpose.
Slips and falls are also common, causing bumps and bruises and also broken bones and lumbar spine fractures. Stay on cleared pathways and avoid dark or wet areas on the sidewalk.
“There’s a lot of ladder use this time of year, especially leading up to Thanksgiving,” said Madsen. And with ladders come falls. “People falling off of ladders is something you see a lot of in the fall and winter. We’ll see people who were on ladders trying to get leaves or snow out of their gutters or trying to hang lights.”
You’ve got to love those holiday parties with all the free food, but beware! The ER has treated people who have gotten food poisoning from eating food that was left out too long. Be wary of mayonnaise-based dishes and anything else that looks like it should have been refrigerated hours ago.
Poinsettias, those red and green plants perfect for decorating your home for Christmas, have a bad reputation for their poisonous leaves, but they may not need to be a priority on your list of holiday worries.
“Poinsettias can have issues with cats and dogs but I’ve never actually seen a case of poinsettia poisoning for humans,” said Madsen. “It may be a little bit more of a myth. My understanding is that you’d have to consume a huge amount to be poisoned and I can’t imagine they taste good.”
We’re not talking about papercuts here. It might sound silly, but those plastic clamshell packages are almost impossible to open! Sliced fingers from the sharp plastic or the tools used to open it can land you in the ER if you’re not careful. Thankfully, some companies have committed to easy-to-open packages without the frustration.
So how do we keep ourselves safe and healthy for the holidays? It’s important to remember that most of the injuries seen in the ER around the holidays are related to snow, whether it’s driving, shoveling, or slipping and falling.
“My advice is that you have to take precautions and take your time,” said Madsen. “Don’t overexert yourself and be careful in ice or snow.”
In general, taking your time is advice that can be applied to prevent any of the above injuries. Slow down and make sure your ladder is on level ground; stop and think before you stick your hand inside a snow blower; devise a strategy to open that plastic packaging before you start going crazy with the knives and scissors. Be careful when driving in snow and always wear a seatbelt.
Madsen also insists that we take care of ourselves emotionally as well. “We see a lot of people coming in depressed and stressed out over the holidays. Don’t let things overwhelm you and take time for yourself."
"Around the holidays, people are always trying to do so much,” Madsen said. So take it from him: slow down, don’t rush, and enjoy the holidays as best as you can.