A season for safety
Author: Sara Rider

Happy holidays! At least, they should be. But for many people, accidents during the holidays can mean an unwanted trip to the emergency room and injuries that can put a damper on holiday fun. From falls to lacerations to house fires, there are lots of dangers this time of year. And sometimes the very things we do to celebrate the season can put us at risk.

Steady on your feet
Many holiday injuries are caused by falls. We get a little too ambitious when we’re hanging the Christmas lights, or maybe a visitor trips on that rug in the den.

“We see injuries caused by falls when people are hanging lights and standing on a ladder,” says Irfan Hydari, M.D., medical director of emergency services at Seton Medical Center. “It’s never a good idea to be on a ladder when there is nobody at home or around the house. And if the fall is from a significant height, you should be calling EMS.”

Even when both feet are safely on the ground, falls can still take a toll. Continues Dr. Hydari, “You’ve got kids and grandparents all together in one house, and some unfamiliar surroundings. Anything from rugs that older people aren’t aware of when they get up in the middle of the night to things people can trip on when they are going down a dark hall – all of them can cause falls.”

Long known as a season of “stuff,” kids’ toys that find their way into common spaces can become a hazard as well. “All of the clutter of the holidays certainly contributes to a greater risk of falls. When the kids are going to bed, it’s easy to leave toys scattered everywhere,” Dr. Hydari relates. “But especially if Grandma and Grandpa are spending the night, it’s best to think about those things and pick up toys after people go to bed.”

The price for that clutter can be a bad fall for a houseguest. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of three adults age 65 and older falls each year and most fractures among older adults are caused by falls. In 2010, 2.3 million older adults were treated in an ER because of a fall.

Careful in the kitchen
When you’re whipping up that special holiday meal, you should also be careful to avoid lacerations and burns, common injuries that can occur in the kitchen.

“You spend a lot of time in the kitchen over the holidays,” acknowledges Dr. Hydari. “When you’re cutting a turkey, potatoes or a cucumber, you sometimes end up cutting your fingers and hands. We see a lot of these injuries around Thanksgiving and Christmas, so you need to be cautious when using a knife in the kitchen.”

The CDC recommends using sharp knives when cooking. Although this may sound counter intuitive, the CDC maintains that dull knives are unsafe and more likely to result in an injury. They also recommend tucking-in the fingers on the hand that’s holding the food for cutting to avoid slicing fingers instead of ingredients.

If you’re interrupted while cutting up food, always place the knife in a safe, flat place to avoid injuring yourself or someone else.

Keep an eye on anything that’s cooking on the stove and avoid loose clothing while cooking. Especially when you have “helpers” in the kitchen, be certain everyone turns burners off and removes pots from the stove.

Up in smoke
While you don’t want to test how well your smoke detectors are working by burning the pumpkin pie or over-roasting the turkey, the holiday season is a good time to pay attention to fire prevention. Last year, fire departments in the U.S. responded to 384,000 house fires according to the CDC, so the holidays are a good time to check the batteries in your smoke detectors to be certain they are working correctly.

Electrical cords can also cause problems – either as a source of an unanticipated electrical shock or potentially even starting a fire.

“With extra lights up around the house, children running around and extension cords everywhere, the holidays are a recipe for electrical accidents as well,” cautions Dr. Hydari. Be certain that extension cords are kept out of pathways and check that electrical cords on infrequently used decorations are intact and safe to use.

Although December in central Texas can be rather balmy at times, when we do get a cold-snap, fireplaces and space heaters may be pressed into service. When that happens, it’s important to keep anything flammable away from heating equipment. The CDC recommends moving objects that can burn at least three feet from a fireplace, wood stove or portable heater.

Know your limits
For many of us, the holidays become an excuse to overindulge in many ways. “When the holidays come around, people do tend to imbibe,” says Dr. Hydari. “That enhances the likelihood of falls and accidents, as well as accidents when you’re driving.”

When you’re hosting a holiday gathering, the CDC recommends being a “helpful host” – if you’re serving alcohol, be sure you offer non-alcoholic drinks as well. Be sure that your guests have designated a non drinking driver and don’t hesitate to take the keys if you think it’s not safe for someone to drive.

Overindulging can also mean eating all those things we know aren’t good for us. “For people who are chronically ill with diabetes or heart disease or another chronic health problem, you can get into medical trouble by overindulging. So it’s probably a good idea for chronically ill patients to stick to their regimen and not exacerbate a chronic condition,” adds Dr. Hydari.

But if all of your precautions don’t keep you out of harm’s way, know that there are people ready to help you – even if it’s 6 a.m. on Christmas Day.

“Emergency personnel throughout Austin work 24/7, and we’re there for your problems,” reminds Dr. Hydari. “So if something does happen, help is out there. You can always rely on your emergency departments or our local EMS.”

Spending time in the ER or opening presents with a cast seem a lot less jolly than a happy, healthy holiday season. Exercising caution and precaution can help keep the happy in your holidays. Stay safe!

Sara Rider is a native Austinite who has worked with physicians and hospitals throughout Texas. She frequently writes freelance articles on health topics for newspapers and magazines.

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