How to Avoid Holiday Injuries

While many associate the holidays with Christmas carols and New Year's countdowns, it's also a prime time of year for serious -- and occasionally deadly -- holiday mishaps.

Just ask Lindsay Rand, an analyst with a Boston-area consulting firm. Two years ago, Rand was putting up her family's holiday decorations when she sustained a nasty electrical shock.

"I was wrapping a string of Christmas lights around a metal banister," she said. "One of the bulbs was broken, and the little wires were touching the banister -- and it was a wet banister as well, which probably had something to do with it."

When her hand came into contact with the banister, Rand suffered a shock that left her palm painfully blistered.

"And because I was on the stairs, I was surprised and jumped back and fell down a short flight of steps after that," she said.

Fortunately for Rand, her injuries weren't severe, and because her father is a doctor, she avoided an emergency room visit.

"I didn't go to an ER or anything," she said, adding that after getting her hand bandaged she was outside again, hanging the holiday lights. "In the end, the Christmas lights looked great."

But not everyone who suffers a holiday-related injury is so lucky. Every year, emergency department doctors treat a variety of patients with serious injuries, from children who have eaten tinsel to those with trauma from alcohol-related car crashes -- proof that the winter holidays offer no vacation from accidents.

Common Holiday Dangers

The end-of-the-year spike in alcohol-drenched office parties, combined with the volume of holiday travel, creates what is perhaps the most deadly mix of factors when it comes to injuries seen in emergency departments during holiday months.

"We see more heart-breaking accidents involving families traveling; so many in the same family are affected," said Dr. Corey Slovis, chairman of emergency medicine at Vanderbilt Medical center in Nashville, Tenn.

While he said these accidents are often due to sleep-deprived parents trying to get their families to their holiday destinations on time, "We see more [motor vehicle accidents] due to drunk driving, and sometimes they hit innocent families."

But not all holiday hazards are on the roads, said Dr. Paul Pepe, chairman of emergency medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

"The 'big one' in terms of holiday-related mishaps -- outside of the usual drinking and driving stuff -- is the issue of persons doing holiday light decorating," he said, adding that falls such as the one experienced by Rand are especially dangerous when they happen to older people.

"We get terrible head injuries -- sometimes fatal bleeding in the skull -- and the usual broken hips, broken legs, et cetera," he said. "A broken hip in someone over 70 years of age classically means a 50 percent chance of dying within the subsequent year due to direct and indirect consequences of undergoing surgery and being laid up."

And then there are the problems that come along with harsh winter weather, noted Dr. Sheldon Jacobson, chairman of emergency medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. These include the worsening of chronic health problems and the onset of the flu season.

"The season can also exacerbate pre-exisiting psychiatric problems and can strain interpersonal relationships," he said.

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