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Holiday Safety 

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By: Frank Counselman, M.D.

Injuries, poisoning can ruin the holidays
I hate to sound like the Grinch, but I’m really just an emergency room doctor hoping to help you avoid some of the most common injuries and mishaps that send people to hospitals during the holidays.

Ornaments and Decorations
Young children have been known to ingest ornaments that look like candy canes or other goodies. Be sure toddlers cannot reach fragile glass ornaments or ornaments with small parts they can pull off and swallow. In recent years, there has been a spate of injuries caused by heavy ceramic ‘stocking holders.’ When toddlers yank Christmas stockings off fireplace mantles, the holders fall on their heads, causing cuts and bruises.

Food Poisoning
Use best practices and common sense with leftovers from holiday buffets, especially meats and dairy products. Refrigerate leftovers promptly, even if it makes that late-night turkey sandwich harder to make. Any foods that have been at room temperature for more than four hours should be thrown away.

Be careful to keep alcoholic beverages out of reach of toddlers. Alcohol is the number one poisoning issue for children during the holiday season. Many holiday drinks look and smell enticing to children, (eggnog, cinnamon spiced rum, etc.) but even small amounts can result in overdose. Be careful setting down full or partially full glasses and cups within reach of children.

Wrap Rage
This is not a joke. It’s a phrase coined by emergency room personnel who treat patients during the holidays with lacerations to their hands from opening that tough plastic clamshell packaging on gifts. As the packages start to open, the plastic you are trying to rip has very sharp edges. Add some holiday ‘spirits’ to the frustration we all experience with this impenetrable packaging, mix in the impatient urging of excited kids, and it’s a recipe for sutures. 

- Use scissors to safely open clamshell packaging.
- If you use a blade, always push it away from you.

Poisonous Plants
Over the years, the poinsettia has unfairly earned the reputation as a dangerous plant. In fact, it is only mildly toxic, with no deaths reported. On the other hand, exercise caution with holly and mistletoe; they can be poisonous if swallowed. Avoid having holly berries as part of table decorations. Their presence with food sends the wrong message to children.

Electric shocks
Broken bulbs, frayed wires and contact with metal railings or gutters can give you a jolt that can knock you off a ladder or step. Make sure strings of bulbs and other lighted decorations are in good shape and be careful in damp environments outdoors.

The National Fire Protection Association reports an average of 240 fires each year caused by dried-out Christmas trees, some resulting in deaths. That’s a good reason to water your fresh tree regularly throughout the season. Saw a thin slice off the bottom of the trunk to increase absorption before placing it in the holder and check the water level daily. There are also automatic watering devices available, some disguised as gift boxes.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports an average of 13,000 fires each year caused by candles, resulting in 170 deaths. Be sure your holiday candles are in steady holders away from other combustibles and never leave them unattended.

Auto accidents
It’s not always drunken holiday revelers who cause wrecks with fatalities or traumatic injuries. Many holiday accidents are caused by sleep-deprived, stressed drivers traveling with their families on a deadline to holiday destinations. With Mom, Dad and kids in the car, these accidents often have wide-ranging, lasting effects on entire families. When you travel, allow yourself enough time to get there without speeding or foregoing stops to stretch your legs and sip some coffee. No one wants the holidays associated with a family tragedy for the rest of their lives.

I wish you a safe and happy Holiday season. 

Frank Counselman, M.D. is past president of the medical staff for Sentara hospitals Norfolk and is Chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School. Dr. Counselman is a Fellow of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

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