We’ve decked the halls and laid out our best holiday plans. But nothing spoils a celebration like a trip to the emergency department. So before you climb the back of the couch to adjust that drooping garland or start packing the decorations up after your holiday celebrations, remember safety first!
“Each year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reports about 15,000 people wind up in emergency departments due to holiday decorating injuries alone,” says St. Mary’s Hospital Emergency Department physician Dr. Matt Lazio. “Most of those visits are due to falls – falls from ladders or off of furniture when you’re hanging lights and other decorations.”
As you make final adjustments to this year’s display – and as you take everything down after the holidays – keep these tips in mind:
• When you pull out your lights for the first time and before you put them away for the year, make sure you look them over. Strings of lights with broken or cracked sockets, bare wires and shorts are not worth the risk or hassle. If you’re hanging them outside, check the label and only use lights approved for outdoor use.
• Use plastic clips to attach your light strings to siding, walls and gutters. Staples and nails can damage the wire’s insulation and create an electrical hazard.
• If it’s raining or snowing, wait for another day to hang or remove your lights. The moisture can make it easier for you to get shocked or slip and fall.
• If you’re climbing a ladder to hang or take down decorations, make sure someone is there to hold the ladder, especially as you’re climbing up and down. Also, keep your weight centered to the middle of the ladder. Leaning to one side or standing on the top two rungs can throw off the center of gravity and land you straight in the ER.
Another big holiday danger is fire. Nationally, nearly a quarter of all residential fires happen in December alone. If you have a live tree in your house, keep it watered at all times. Trees that dry out are a big risk. Always place live trees away from radiators, fireplaces and other things that can make it dry out faster. When you’re decorating the tree, make sure light strings are in good shape. Keep lit candles away from your tree and any garlands you string around the house. Don’t forget to turn out the holiday lights when you go to bed!
Trees and decorations aren’t the only holiday fire hazard.
“Fireplaces are a cozy way to enjoy a cold December night, just remember to play it safe,” says Dr. Lazio. “The general rule of thumb is to have your chimney’s flue cleaned at least once a year to get rid of creosote. And if you’re done unwrapping gifts, make sure not to throw the wrapping paper in the fireplace. Wrapping paper can ignite suddenly and intensely due to the coating and cause a flash fire.”
If you’re expecting children to visit this holiday season, keep in mind that ornaments, decorations and holiday plants can all pose additional risks for kids. As you’re decorating, use shatterproof ornaments and avoid small decorations that look like candy or food. Remember that holly berries, mistletoe, poinsettias and Christmas cactus are poisonous for kids and pets. Keep these plants out of reach.
Holiday and winter injuries aren’t just limited to your house. Be a safe shopper this year. While you’re out purchasing last minute gifts or taking back returns after your family celebrations, watch for slippery floors, trip hazards and make sure your kids are shopping safely as well.
“If you put your child in a shopping cart, always use the safety belt,” says Dr. Lazio. “If you’re in a store with an escalator, make sure everyone has their shoelaces tied and watch out for drawstrings, scarves or mittens that could get trapped.”
One of the biggest holiday dangers can lurk on your dinner table.
“Foodborne illness is no laughing matter,” says Ellen Smith, a nurse epidemiologist with St. Mary’s Hospital. “It causes really bad gastrointestinal problems, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea that can last from a day or two to several days depending on the organism.”
To keep everyone enjoying this year’s meal, Smith recommends cleaning the entire kitchen before you start preparing your holiday feast. Keep utensils and cutting boards used for raw meat separate from those used for other foods. Make sure you thaw frozen items properly.
“You want to be thawing your meat in the refrigerator and not on the kitchen counter,” says Smith. “The danger zone where bacteria grow the best is between 40 and 140 degrees and so you want to keep foods either above or below these temperatures.”
When food is left on the counter it can thaw unevenly. This means that while the inside of the meat is still frozen, the outside can be thawed and allow harmful bacteria to grow.
“And keep in mind even the best prepared food has a short shelf-life when out on the dinner table,” adds Smith. “Anything that has mayonnaise in it needs to be watched closely. And most meats have the right environment for organisms to multiply especially when people reach in with their fingers. As a general rule, you should refrigerate all meats and any refrigerated foods within one to two hours. And after three or four days of leftovers, they need to be tossed.”
If you’re planning a buffet style meal, keep hand sanitizer at the start of the line. This will help ensure everyone going through the line will do so with clean hands. For chips and other loose items, offer tongs so people won’t reach in with their hands.
December is also a peak month for viral illnesses. You can protect yourself and others from the flu and other illness by following a few simple steps:
• Get your flu shot – a new vaccine is developed every year to help combat the most prevalent influenza strains. If you haven’t received your vaccine yet, make an appointment. Flu shots are available at your doctor’s office and most pharmacies.
• Wash your hands – good hand hygiene means frequent washing with soap and water. If your hands are visibly dirty or you’ve been out shopping but you don’t have access to soap and water, alcohol based sanitizer is a good second option.
• Cover your cough – if you have a cough, try to remember to cough into the crook of your elbow. This will keep germs from spreading through the air and can help keep your hands germ-free.
• Stay home when sick – the best medicine for illnesses like a cold or the flu is rest. Help yourself heal – and avoid sharing germs – by simply staying home and avoiding others when you aren’t well.
While some of these safety reminders may feel routine, they can be hard to remember during a very busy season “We certainly don’t want to spoil the holiday season,” says Dr. Lazio. “Just remember to be mindful. It’s when you rush or you’re tired, or you try to do several things at once that you really place yourself or your family at risk. Slow down, think it through and you’ll enjoy the holidays even more.”
Holiday Injuries by the Numbers
• 15,000 – Emergency department visits due to holiday decorating
• 6,000 – Holiday injuries due to falls alone
• 25,000-36,000 – CDC’s estimate of the real number of holiday injuries, including injuries that don’t require a trip to the doctor
• 21,000 – Number of kids injured in shopping cart accidents each year