4 Holiday Health Hazards to Avoid

By Kathleen Doheny. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

While many of us are bracing for teeming shopping crowds and maddening traffic this holiday season, physician Wally Ghurabi, M.D., is bracing for an onslaught of new patients.

If history repeats, Ghurabi, chief of emergency services at the Nethercutt Emergency Center at UCLA’s Medical Center, will have plenty of ER visits during this hectic period.

Every year, he sees a slew of seasonal mishaps — from holiday heart attacks and falls off ladders to serious cuts from wrestling with modern-day packaging. 

Many of these health emergencies, he says, could be avoided with just a bit of pre-planning and a dash of common sense. Here are his top four holiday health hazards with advice on reducing your risks:

1. Holiday Heart Attacks

It's true: Heart attacks are more common in winter months than in the summertime, and some experts find that the most at-home heart emergencies occur on Christmas Day, December 26 and New Year’s Day.

While many factors play a part in heart emergencies during this time of year, delaying treatment is the biggest factor. Oftentimes, a person who would otherwise immediately seek medical help for heart problems, postpones a doctor visit until after the holidays because he doesn’t want to interfere with vacations or family get-togethers.

To reduce the risk of becoming a statistic, call 911 immediately if you suspect a heart attack, Ghurabi urges.

Avoid overexerting yourself, he says. Be especially careful if you’re out of shape, overweight or have other risk factors. Also, try to limit the amount of heavy lifting you do. Australian researchers evaluated 500 patients with heart attacks and found that 7 percent were shoveling snow right before the myocardial event.

Rx Solution: If you have to lift heavy stuff and are at risk for a heart attack, persuade a younger family member to tackle the tasks instead.

2. Tipsy Decorating Falls

Ghurabi sees patients who have fallen from ladders with serious consequences. “They break their back, their ankle, their pelvis,” he says. According to the National Safety Council, falls (from ladders and other locations) accounted for nearly 9 million visits to the ER last year.

Ghurabi has noticed a significant trend: Patients who come in with injuries from a fall have also had a nip or two of very good cheer before deciding it’s time to decorate. Up they climb onto the ladder, string of lights in hand, and then down they go.

“Alcohol disturbs your gait and equilibrium,” he says. “You are wobbly on your feet, so both ascending and descending a ladder to decorate can be treacherous.”

Rx Solution. First things first, he says. “Decorate then celebrate.”

3. Texting While Multitasking

People who wouldn’t dream of texting and driving may actually engage in texting and walking — or texting and shopping, or texting and watching young children, says Ghurabi.

In fact, walking and texting may be the worst combo, according to researchers at Stony Brook University. In a study of 33 men and women, they found those who texted while walking strolled about one-third slower than those not texting. Not a problem, maybe, unless you’re in a crosswalk. Texting pedestrians also veered off course, inviting falls and trips and running into obstacles, according to the researchers who reported the findings in the Gait and Posture journal.

Rx Solution. It’s difficult but effective advice: Don’t text and multitask, Ghurabi urges. Put the phone away when you’re anywhere near traffic, whether on foot or in the driver’s seat.

4. Thief-Proof Packaging

From toys to holiday decorations, today’s packaging is meant to deter thieves. In the process, of course, it can frustrate the rest of us, not to mention cut our epidermis to shreds. When frustration leads to anger, many shoppers call this “wrap rage,” and attack the package with sharp knives, razor blades and other hazardous tools. This health hazard can, of course, lead to cuts, gashes and other types of lacerations.

Rx Solution. Special tools, available online for less than $20, can reduce frustration and finger slices, Ghurabi says. Search online for a package opener tool, or ask someone who hasn’t hit the spiked eggnog for help.

Take the next steps

While the Rx solutions mentioned above will definitely help you safeguard against injuries and health hazards this holiday season, sometimes health-related emergencies are inevitable. Here are some ways you can ensure you’re prepared for any holiday mishaps that come your way:

  • Prepare for emergencies by keeping useful phone numbers handy in your phone or next to it. Other than your doctor and 911, include numbers for poison control (800-222-1222).
  • If you’re also the family caregiver, keep a short list of medications on the refrigerator in case of emergencies. Make sure all of your insurance cards and health care contacts are up to date. If you use professional nurses or therapists, confirm their schedules in advance during these hazardous, hectic days.

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