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Holiday Safety 

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By: Francis L. Counselman, M.D., CPE, FACEP

The holidays are a time to reconnection with family and friends and an opportunity to celebrate.  Adding to the festive atmosphere, the house is frequently adorned with plants and decorations that only come out for a few weeks each year.  To ensure this holiday season is safe and healthy for you and your family, please keep these tips in mind. 

The poinsettia, probably the plant most identified with the Christmas season, has gained an unfair reputation as poisonous.  In reality, a retrospective review of pediatric poinsettia ingestions has shown the plant to be benign, and ingestion does not usually require any treatment.  However, oil from the plant can cause a dermatitis, which should be treated with washing the skin with soap and water. 

Ever since Washington Irving wrote about the tradition of young men kissing a lady under the mistletoe, this practice has thrived.  To keep it safe, position the mistletoe high and out of reach of children, and wrap it in netting so no berries or leaves fall to the floor. One or two berries or leaves ingested will usually not cause harm. Ingestion of more can result in nausea, vomiting and GI distress.

Holly berries are a very popular table decoration, and their red color attracts small children.  It’s probably best, however, not to place holly berries on dining areas, as it sends a mixed message to children that they are fair game for eating.  Ingestion of one or two berries will usually not cause harm; more than that can result in abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. 

A snow globe can easily capture the imagination of small children.  The most inquisitive of children may decide to break the globe open to learn more about its contents.  The “snow” is calcium carbonate, a nontoxic substance. However, the water in the globe may be contaminated with bacteria, and if ingested can cause symptoms of food poisoning, such as vomiting, diarrhea and stomach ache.

Christmas ornaments may be made of wood, glass, plastic or thin metal.  The greatest danger with ornaments is the blockage of the airway or GI tract if ingested.  The same goes for icicles or tinsel.  Decorating the tree should be under the watchful eye of an adult.

For some, healthy eating habits go out the window during the holidays, but common sense is still required.  Don’t feel like you must eat everything offered; moderation is still a good guide.  Refrigerate leftovers, especially meats and dairy products, promptly.  Any food that has been left at room temperature for more than four hours should be thrown away.

The number one holiday hazard, not surprisingly, is alcohol. There are more parties (and therefore opportunities for children to encounter alcoholic drinks that look and smell appetizing, such as cinnamon spiced rum and eggnog.  Children are much more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and can become toxic with ingestion of even a small amount.  Do not leave unfinished drinks around the house.  Be sure to empty them and place them out of reach of children.  For adults, enjoy the holidays but have a designated driver, if you are going to be drinking.  No one wants the holidays associated with a family tragedy for the rest of their lives.  I wish you all 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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