The holidays are a time of celebration, but in the midst of the preparation and decoration, travel and gatherings, you may come across unexpected hazards that can put you and your family in harm’s way. Samuel Prater, MD, an associate professor with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston and medical director of the Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center Emergency Department, sees some of the same kinds of incidents around this time every year — from light-hanging accidents to fireworks injuries — when they land people in Emergency Centers.
We spoke to Dr. Prater about some of the most common injuries and ailments he sees in the ER during the holiday season — and how to avoid them.
Falls from ladders are especially common around the holidays, when people who might not set foot on a ladder any other time of year do so without always taking the proper precautions. “We always see the standard Christmas decoration mishaps: people falling while trying to put lights on the roof, or even while decorating the tree,” Dr. Prater says.
If you have to use a ladder, be sure it’s set on firm, level ground and wear slip-resistant shoes. If you have issues with balance or a condition that makes climbing difficult, stay on the ground, Dr. Prater advises. “For example, if your leg’s in a cast from a previous injury, don’t climb a ladder,” he says. Yes, he’s seen it happen — when the person in the cast fell and ended up in the ER again.
The holidays are rife with tiny treats that can wind up in the hands — and mouths — of toddlers, where they pose a choking risk. “A lot of Christmas ornaments present choking hazards to small children,” Dr. Prater says. “Anything small enough to go in a child’s mouth should be up high, along with anything made of glass that can break and cut someone.” Ornaments that look like food can be especially tantalizing to a toddler. So can actual foods, such as candy and nuts that might be set out for guests. Those should also be kept out of reach of little hands.
Especially in Houston, some people only use their fireplace around this time of year. That can be a hazard if you haven’t had your chimney cleaned recently, but even if everything is functioning properly, it can still pose a risk to children if they’re not closely supervised. “Those glass or metal barriers can get extremely hot, and toddlers can walk right into them,” Dr. Prater says. Hot ovens and stovetops can also be a hazard for kids, especially in busy kitchens during holiday gatherings, when adults might not be paying close attention.
When family members visit for the holidays, they often bring medications with them, and if you have kids around, it’s important to keep those medications safely out of reach. Dr. Prater sees a number of children in the ER who’ve accidentally ingested medication that’s safe for adults but extremely dangerous for smaller bodies. “I took care of one little girl who got into a relative’s blood pressure pills. One of those pills is an appropriate dose for an adult, but it can be lethal for a kid,” he says. “Luckily, her mom reacted quickly and the girl was OK.”
Some of the worst injuries in the ER every holiday season are related to fireworks. “We see them every year as we get closer to New Year’s Eve,” Dr. Prater says. In fact, 11,500 Americans were treated for fireworks injuries in ERs last year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. While fireworks are illegal within the Houston city limits, that doesn’t stop many people from setting them off, and they are permitted within the unincorporated parts of Harris County. If you choose to set off fireworks to ring in the new year, use caution, Dr. Prater says. Be sure to keep fireworks away from children, and don’t drink alcohol while using them. Never try to relight or pick up a firework that hasn’t ignited all the way, and keep a bucket of water or a garden hose handy to douse the duds.
Each year, one in six Americans, or 48 million people, get sick from eating contaminated food, the CDC reports. With food sitting out for hours at holiday parties, that risk is especially high. The CDC recommends that all perishable foods — including cooked meat, dairy products and foods containing eggs — be refrigerated within two hours. “If you’re making a mayo- or cheese-based dip, make sure it doesn’t sit out for too long, or keep it on ice,” Dr. Prater says. “If you go to a party where there’s a charcuterie board or something like that, with meats and cheeses, eat it at the beginning of the party — not the end.”