You may be envisioning a holiday season full of hearty meals, loved ones and gifts ― but not a visit to the emergency room during a pandemic.
Holiday-related injuries happen more frequently than you might expect, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. While some issues are completely avoidable, others you can prepare for in case they happen.
Here are the most common holiday-related injuries, according to the CPSC and experts, plus some advice on how to lower your risk.
Bone and muscle pain from holiday decorating
There are an estimated 160 decorating-related injuries per day around the holidays, and half of those incidents involve falls, according to data from the CPSC.
Barbara Bergin, an orthopedic surgeon at Texas Orthopedics in Austin, said even simply decorating a tree can have people coming into her office six to nine months after the holidays, which is the average time that an orthopedic injury takes to heal. This is because the motion of reaching up, common while decorating, can lead to rotator cuff injuries, especially in older people.
“We have physical liabilities that could be genetic or the result of old injuries, but everybody is walking around with the potential to tear their rotator cuff after about 50 or 60,” she said. “People are putting ornaments on trees, reaching up into closets to get decorations down.”
She recommended getting a very safe step stool with “nice, fat steps” to ensure you aren’t standing on something unsafe while decorating. If you need to use a ladder, make sure it’s stable and keep someone around to monitor you.
Fires caused by Christmas trees, lights or candles
The holidays mean an abundance of beautiful, shining decorations, from candles to Christmas tree lights ― and an increased risk of fire.
Alex Forte, a fire safety merchant for The Home Depot in Atlanta, said this is often due to unattended flames and placing combustibles like a Christmas tree too close to a heat source. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 1 in 5 Christmas tree fires are caused by decorative lights. In December, an estimated 45% of home decoration fires are from candles, up from 35% the rest of the year.
To prevent one of these fires, don’t leave candles unattended, or near anything else that can catch flame. “Add water to your tree stand every day,” Forte said. “As Christmas trees dry out, they become more and more flammable.”
Holiday-related events can sometimes cause undue stress on the heart, according to Lara Goitein, a pulmonary and critical care physician and founding medical director of clinician-directed performance improvement at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Goitein said heart attack rates from Dec. 25-27 are higher than at any other time of year.
“Family stress, big salty meals, and unusual physical activity … can precipitate heart attacks, heart failure and other problems,” she explained.
To prevent heart problems this holiday season, know your personal limits when it comes to physical activity, she said. The American Heart Association also recommends avoiding vigorous outdoor activities in extremely cold temperatures to protect your heart.
Most importantly, don’t ignore symptoms of a serious illness for the sake of not interrupting a holiday celebration. Chest pain, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, leg swelling or stroke symptoms like weakness or slurring speech are all emergencies.
Fires from holiday cooking
More kitchen use and elaborate meals may mean more fires. Thanksgiving is the top day for home cooking fires, followed by Christmas Day and Christmas Eve, according National Fire Protection Association data.
“Never leave a hot cooking surface operating unattended, and keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen,” Forte said. “Move wooden utensils, dish towels, cookbooks and other combustible materials away from the stove.”
Choking or other issues from toys
Sometimes well-intentioned gifts turn into harmful objects. CPSC data from 2020 shows there were nearly 150,000 toy-related injuries treated in emergency departments, and nine deaths in kids 14 and younger. Most of the deaths were attributed to choking on small toy parts. It’s also important to watch for accidental battery consumption with new toys around small children.
To avoid faulty or dangerous toys, buy from stores or retailers you know and trust and look for a certification mark from an independent testing organization.
Don’t wait to get help, even if it’s a holiday in a pandemic
Even before the pandemic, the idea of getting prompt medical attention from understaffed hospitals during the holidays could seem almost impossible. Goitein said this is a valid concern, but not one that should stop you from seeking help quickly.
“Emergency room and hospital visits tend to fall during the holidays, but are then followed by a large [burst] of patients arriving in subsequent days,” she said.
Don’t wait to seek help, especially if you are experiencing life-threatening symptoms.
“If you need care, be persistent,” Goitein said. “If you can’t reach your doctor, ask to speak to the doctor on call. Use urgent care facilities if needed, and in the worst-case scenario, the emergency room.”