Thanksgiving Health Hazards Can Land Partygoers in the ER

PHOTO: From overindulgence to car accidents, Thanksgiving poses various hazards to ones health.PlayGetty Images
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The turkeys aren't the only ones who should fear for their health on Thanksgiving. The holiday, known for gluttony and family drama, can land unsuspecting celebrators in the ER if they're not careful.

Here, at the risk of bringing up some unpleasant issues on a holiday, is some practical advice on how to stay safe.

Food Poisoning

Whether the stuffing goes inside the bird or in a casserole dish, it's surprisingly easy to make your Thanksgiving guests ill.

Some turkeys have harmful bacteria, like salmonella or campylobacter, that can both cause severe diarrhea for days. Sometimes, it can even be tinged with blood.

"Patients say it's like having shredded glass pass through your lower G.I. tract," said Dr. Corey Slovis, chairman of emergency medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Not all turkeys have the bacteria, but it's impossible to tell which aren't safe. Cooking turkeys thoroughly will ensure that guests aren't trapped in the bathroom for Black Friday, and it's important to keep countertops clean, too. Cooks and guests can get bacteria from the turkey on their hands, and then ingest it while eating other foods.

As far as the Great Stuffing Debate is concerned, if your family cook decides to put it in the bird, he or she should be extra careful. If the turkey has any bacteria, it can multiply in the moist environment of the stuffing.

"One of the biggest holiday hazards is people cooking and stuffing birds," Slovis said. "People don't appreciate that stuffing is an amazing culture medium until it is fully heated."

The Centers for Disease Control has a guide for thawing, preparing and cooking turkeys at the right temperature.

Side dishes are also a hazard because it's impossible to tell whether a dish has gone bad from sitting at room temperature for too long, Slovis said. Dishes with mayonnaise are especially likely to go bad and make people sick.

Binge Drinking and Your Heart

Regardless of whether you have a heart condition, overindulging on Thanksgiving can have more dire consequences than a too-full stomach.

Slovis said patients who have heart conditions turn up in the ER on holidays because of excess drinking, added stress and overexertion. But not all of those patients know they have heart conditions ahead of time.

Slovis remembers a patient from two or three years ago who had a minor car accident on the holiday. The man was having a heart attack. It wasn't long before he went into cardiac arrest and died.

"While doctors were trying to resuscitate him, his phone was ringing, and his daughter was calling to find out where he was because he was going between his two daughters' houses when it happened," Slovis said. "I don't know if we see more of them, but they seem more tragic."

Binge drinking can also cause something called "holiday heart syndrome," or abnormal heart rhythms brought on by binge drinking that could lead to stroke and death.

"Your heart is basically beating very erratically, chaotically, and extremely fast," Dr. Curtis Rimmerman, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told last year. His patients have described the feeling as "like having a Mexican jumping bean inside your chest."

One arrhythmia, called atrial fibrillation, happens when the upper heart chambers quiver, allowing blood to pool inside the heart. Over time, the blood can clot, and the clot, traveling through blood vessels to the brain, can cause a stroke.

Car Accidents

Thanksgiving was the deadliest holiday to be on the road in 2010, according to the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That day, there were 431 fatal car accidents, compared with 259 on Christmas the same year. And this year, 39.1 million Americans are expected to drive at least 50 miles to their holiday destinations, according to AAA auto club.

Click here to read More Fatal Car Crashes on Thanksgiving Day: Advice That Could Save Your Life.

"Whenever you increase the number of people traveling, and the number of cars, your likelihood and chance of having an accident are going to increase, just by statistics," said Dr. Rahul Sharma, who heads NYU Langone Medical Center's emergency department, and has worked his share of holidays in the ER.

Other Accidents

The Vanderbilt ER in Nashville will be fully staffed this Thanksgiving as the staff gets ready for cooking accidents and family fights, resulting in cuts and bruises, Slovis said. The day will get busier as it gets later.

He said people often don't see their doctors on the days leading up to the holidays because they think they can deal with their minor symptoms. But often, they have to go to the hospital on Thanksgiving because they waited and their symptoms got out of hand.

And in Tennessee, a new Thanksgiving tradition has landed people in Vanderbilt's ER: deep-fried turkeys.

"It's so much harder to burn yourself if the turkey is going in the oven than if the turkey is going into hot, boiling oil," he said. "If not done carefully, it can cause a fire. The oil is extremely hot and splashes onto feet and hands."

Cold and Flu -- Don't Get Grandma Sick

Thanksgiving may be the beginning of the "most wonderful time of the year," but it also comes at the beginning of flu season. And with holiday hugs and handshakes, people should be mindful to wash hands regularly.

Slovis said sick guests should keep track of what they touch and be sure to use anti-bacterial gel regularly.

And there's still time to get a flu shot before the big family gathering, Slovis said, adding that people should ignore the notion that the flu shot can give people the flu.

"You were going to get the flu, and then you just happened to get the flu shot the day before," he said.

The shot should take seven to 10 days to kick in, and it will provide immunity just in time for the remaining winter holidays.

Secondhand Smoke in Airports

Although most restaurants and businesses are smoke-free, five hub airports still have smoking sections and restaurants, putting holiday travelers at risk for secondhand smoke inhalation. The CDC found that Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Denver International Airport, and Salt Lake City International Airport have five times more secondhand smoke air pollution than smoke-free airports.

With more than 110 billion passengers, the five airports accounted for about 15 percent of all air travel in 2011.

"What we found is that smoke does leak out of smoke-permitted areas," said CDC epidemiologist Brian King, who co-authored the study. "They claim that there's a ventilation system. ... We know from past research that there is no safe level of secondhand smoke."

The smoke can especially irritate the airways of travelers with asthma and other respiratory ailments. And, of course, it also has long term health effects, including lung cancer and heart disease.