Dec. 5, 2007 -- 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.
Oddly, though, hospital visits don't seem to peak on holidays like Christmas Day and New Year's Eve . Rather, emergency department traffic gets a significant bump after these holidays -- suggesting that many "tough it out" with holiday injuries, at least for the day.
"Before and particularly afterward, patients tend to put off problems," said Dr. Stephen Hargarten, chairman of emergency medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin. "They want to make it through the holidays."
"Family holidays tend to be quiet; people evidently prefer to be at home with friends and family," said Dr. Cai Glushak, international medical director for Chicago-based AXA Assistance. "On the other hand, the day after a holiday is typically horrendous -- everyone who held out over a spontaneous problem comes in even sicker; people with congestive heart failure and on dialysis are often fluid overloaded and have eaten a high salt load."
"Really, we're so busy every day, these 'holiday-related entities' are somewhat of a bump in the road -- although admittedly, they affect us a little more as sentimentally sad and tragic given the holiday circumstance," Pepe added.
How To Keep Yourself Safe
Fortunately, avoiding holiday-related injuries often depends on following a few common-sense tips -- what Pepe termed "duh, duh, duh stuff."
"Don't leave home unless you really have to. Other people on the roadways are drunk and driving," he said. "Don't drink and drive yourself. If you have to go out, use designated drivers."
For those with infants and small children with a taste for anything shiny, precautions are needed to keep tinsel and glass ornaments out of reach.
"Make sure decorations and toys are safe for children," Glushak added.
Those with special needs -- dialysis patients, for example -- should head into the holidays prepared. This means getting fully dialyzed before the celebrations. And people on low-salt diets should take care not to overindulge in their favorite holiday delicacies.
Last but not least, those who plan on decorating their homes may do best to leave the dangerous stuff to the pros.
"If you really want to do high-level lighting, get someone professional -- or at least more expert -- to deal with decorating, and use better sense when going to heights," Pepe urged.
It's a tip that Rand may well take to heart this year as her family prepares to decorate once more for the holidays.
"Anything can and will go wrong this time of year," Rand says. "I would just say keep a good sense of humor -- and know who the nearest doctor is."