12 Holiday Mishaps

It's a Wonderful Life: Stay Free of These Holiday Hazards

With the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it’s easy to become distracted in the shuffle of extra activities and overlook everyday precautions that help keep us safe and healthy. In fact, statistics show that mishaps occur more frequently during the holiday period.

Caregivers unfortunately bear much of this strain, as they not only endure the same holiday stress as their patients but are also responsible for delivering extra care and compassion during an already stressful season.

Aside from cold and flu season, the holidays also bring a flurry of various common accidents—many of which might come as a surprise. Throughout this month, these 12 holiday mishaps are outlined below.

1. Decoration-related accidents

illustration of a person falling from a ladder while hanging lights

Decorations were one of Clark Griswold’s favorite parts of the holidays in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” Unfortunately for the Griswold’s and their neighbors, that overzealous love led to a lot of problems. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission noted that 13,000+ people were treated in the ER for holiday decorating-related injuries. Most commonly treated were: older adults hanging outdoor lights, patients that had consumed alcohol while decorating (injuring their wrists or shoulders), and children attempting to help, but developed concussions or head lacerations. When getting festive with holiday decorations, making safety a priority can keep your holiday traditions from becoming a holiday tragedy. Additional data shows:

  • 5,800 accidents occur when people fall putting up decorations during the holiday season
  • 2,000 people every winter are treated for lacerations, sprains, and more due to tripping over extension cords
  • 50% of Christmas tree fires happen between December 22-January 5, due to faulty lights, candle decorations, and more

Safety tips

  • Check that artificial trees are labeled fire resistant before stringing with lights
  • Keep real trees watered and remove from the home when it dries out
  • Place trees 3+ feet away from fireplaces, radiators, and other heat sources,
  • Avoid placing breakable ornaments within reach of small children and pets
  • Use indoor lights indoors and outdoor lights outdoors only as directed
  • Replace light sets with broken or cracked sockets, frayed or bare wires, or loose connections
  • Keep plugs off the ground away from puddles and snow
  • Turn off all lights and decorations before going to bed or leaving the house
  • Ensure ladders are on a level surface and the areas around its top and bottom are clear
  • Extend ladders 3+ feet beyond the edge of a roof
  • Move a ladder’s location, rather than overreaching
  • Check that even stepladders are fully opened and locked

2. Car crashes

illustration of a car crashed into a tree

According to Federal statistics, an estimated 5,000 lives are lost and more than 418,000 people are injured each year across the nation in bad weather car accidents. Per the National Safety Council, many people choose to travel by car during the holidays, which has the highest fatality rate of any major form of transportation based on fatalities per passenger mile. According to Injury Facts, one third of the following fatalities were related to alcohol impairment in 2017:

  • 329 lives lost on New Year's Day
  • 463 lives lost on Thanksgiving Day
  • 299 lives lost on Christmas Day

Safety tips

  • Prepare your car for winter (test battery, ensure cooling system is functioning, etc.)
  • Keep an emergency preparedness kit in the vehicle always
  • Stay rested and avoid driving while drowsy
  • Avoid traffic when possible by leaving early and planning ahead
  • Ensure every passenger is properly buckled up
  • Refrain from cell phone use or other distractions (navigation systems) while driving
  • Stay alert and practice defensive driving
  • Designate a sober driver or arrange for a taxi or rideshare service to ensure guests make it home safely after a holiday party
  • Slow down if wet or icy roads are present, and allow a safe distance from other vehicles
  • Use proper signals (well in advance) for lane changes or turns
  • Avoid hard braking in wet or icy conditions to avoid skidding or sliding

3. Food poisoning

illustration of a child holding his stomach in discomfort

Food poisoning is more common than most people realize, reported in 48 million cases a year. Especially susceptible populations include pregnant women, children under the age of 5, adults 65 years and older, and people with weakened immune systems due to illness or medical treatment. Unfortunately, 53% of U.S. adults wrongly believe that food poisoning from food prepared in home is “not very common.” Safefood, an Irish food safety body says cross-contamination from raw meat and poultry is one of the main reasons for food poisoning. They also point out that studies have shown that up to 80% of food poisoning result from unsafe cooking practices in the home. Among healthcare providers, registered nurses and registered dietitians may be better positioned to provide patients with information about food safety than physicians as they can spend more time interacting with patients, making it even more important that they have accurate and thorough information.

A study of 101 home-based outbreaks determined that inappropriate food storage accounted for 50% of causative factors, while cross-contamination accounted for 28% of these mistakes. Food poisoning often goes unreported simply because people don’t realize they have it. Symptoms are often like other illnesses and can occur anywhere between a few hours of consuming food or as long as several weeks after. Food poisoning doesn’t just occur from food that wasn’t properly cooked, it can also be passed by unwashed hands and can live on fresh produce that isn’t properly cleaned. Foodsafety.gov also indicates that each year foodborne illness cause:

  • 128,000 hospitalizations
  • 3,000 deaths
  • 1 in 6 Americans affected

Safety tips:

  • Wash hands frequently, especially when handling food
  • Maintain safe distance between raw meat and fresh produce, and do not wash meat before cooking
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using separate cutting boards, plates, and utensils for uncooked and cooked meats and produce
  • Use a food thermometer to ensure meat is cooked to a proper temperature
  • Quickly refrigerate hot or cold leftover food (within two hours of being served)
  • Cut poultry leftovers in small pieces so they can chill quickly
  • Consume leftovers within 3-4 days (if they are properly refrigerated and safely reheated)

4. Wrapping/unwrapping gifts

illustration of scissor injury while wrapping gifts

A perhaps seemingly harmless activity results in hundreds of injuries and hospital visits every holiday season. While working to create the perfect gift appearance, many unintentionally either harm themselves while gift wrapping, or the gift’s recipient as they’re attempting to open the gift. This “harmless fun” has proven to be otherwise, as statistics show:

  • 6,000 people are treated annually for lacerations from opening presents
  • 6,500 annual ED visits in the U.S. from attempting to open packaging, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission
  • 17% of adults reported being either injured at least once or know of someone who was injured while opening a holiday or birthday gift (based on a study conducted by the Institute for Good Medicine)

Safety tips

  • Exercise common sense when wrapping gifts, making it simple for the recipient to open
  • Never use sharp objects (such as razor blades or pocket knives) to open gifts
  • Keep tight-bounding materials to a minimum (hard to remove ribbons, etc.)
  • Refrain from last-minute gift wrapping when overly tired or rushed
  • Keep children away from scissors or sharp tape dispensers and ribbons when gift wrapping
  • Ensure a First Aid Kit is close by always in case of cuts or lacerations

5. Cooking-related accidents

illustration of a grease fire on a stove

The holiday season generally brings a tradition of family-favorite dishes and everyone’s favorite homecooked meals. With the rush to accomplish so much in a short amount of time, accidental cooking-related injuries are all too common during the holiday season. From hot to sharp cooking equipment and appliances it’s critical to remember to put safety first.

Indeed, ranges and ovens were involved in 17,300 burn incidents in 2009 in U.S. emergency departments. Americans love fried foods, and that extends to our holiday turkey. However, frying a whole turkey can be dangerous if done improperly—accounting for an average of five deaths, 60 injuries, and the destruction of 900 homes each year. In fact, home fires involving cooking peak on dates that are major U.S. holidays with traditions of cooking, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Christmas Eve. During 2004-2008, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 154,700 home cooking fires each year, resulting in:

  • 460 deaths
  • 4,850 injuries
  • $724 million in property damage

Safety tips:

  • Ensure kitchens or other cooking areas are well ventilated, and never leave cooking food unmonitored
  • Wear proper protective equipment (gloves, etc.) when handling hot equipment or appliances
  • Keep children away from boiling water or hot stoves and ovens
  • Have a fire extinguisher safely stored in every kitchen and cooking area

6. Children and pet choking hazards

illustration of a child and choking hazards

Holiday decorations (particularly glass ornaments) are a common safety hazard parents should play close attention to throughout the season. Children and pets alike are frequent victims of choking accidents due to small, seemingly harmless objects. Tinsel can be especially dangerous for pets when ingested as it tends to be easily wrapped around intestines. Garlands can be wrapped around a neck and tangled, causing a choking hazard. A study published in the journal Pediatric Emergency Care, found out of a total of 76 cases from October 1995 to March 2008:

  • 56% involved ingestion or taking fragments of ornaments or light bulbs into the mouth
  • Over 25% of these injuries resulted in bleeding of the mouth or gastrointestinal tract
  • 27% of cases involved lacerations; more than two-thirds of lacerations required surgical repair

Safety tips:

  • Refrain from using breakable ornaments with young children in the home, or keep them out of reach if they are used (placed higher in Christmas trees or other decorations)
  • Keep salt dough ornaments away from pets, as they are dangerous if ingested
  • Store extra Christmas lights (replacement bulbs) out of reach of children
  • Keep batteries in a secure location that children cannot access
  • Lock up gift-wrapping decorations, such as ribbons, away from children and pets

7. Back strains and seasonal pains

illustration of a man hurting his back while shoveling snow

Aside from the mental and emotional stress associated with the holiday season, the physical stress our bodies endure can be a lot to handle. Especially for those who aren’t used to the season’s fast pace and physical demands, the extra stress can be dangerous to those already at higher health risks with heart issues.

Each year, there are nearly 100 deaths and 11,500 trips to the emergency department from snow shoveling injuries. Did you know that men aged 55 and older are twice as likely as women the same age to have snow shoveling related heart symptoms? According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2016 there were 337 reported holiday accidents of which 52 (15%) were lower back injuries due to lifting heavy objects. Some common holiday activities that are physically demanding include:

  • Shoveling snow
  • Traveling with heavy luggage
  • Lifting heavy decorations
  • Assembling large or heavy gifts or equipment
  • Cooking large or labor-intensive meals

Safety tips:

  • Go for a wellness visit with your primary care physician pre-holiday season
  • Lift heavy packages, etc., by bending the knees and keeping the weight in your legs (vs. your back)
  • Take breaks between long periods of any activity including shoveling, cooking, or wrapping gifts
  • Avoid wearing high heels or impractical shoes when possible, and use compression socks when sitting for three hours or longer on flights
  • Relax shoulders and avoid hunching when cooking or decorating
  • Report any symptoms of dizziness, chest pains, or limb pain to a medical professional as soon as you notice them

8. Dangerous gifts

illustration of a man falling off a bike

Did you know December is Safe Toys and Gifts Month? Although more common in children, adults aren’t exempt from dangerous gift-related injuries from motorcycles, guns, and knives. Children’s products represent more than 40% of recalls by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and account for more than 50% of injuries due to recalled products. However, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, of the 251,700 estimated toy-related, emergency department-treated injuries in 2017:

  • 184,000 (73%) happened to children younger than 15 years of age
  • 174,300 (69%) occurred to children 12 years of age or younger
  • 89,800 (36%) happened to children younger than 5 years of age

Safety tips:

  • Choose toys in the correct age range
  • Select toys for children under 3 that do not have small parts (choking hazards)
  • Avoid toys that must be plugged into an electrical outlet for children less than 10 years of age
  • Practice caution with toys containing button batteries or magnets
  • Include safety gear when gifting scooters, bikes, and other riding equipment
  • Visit recalls.gov to ensure that nothing on your shopping list has already been recalled

9. Winter sports

graphic of someone with skis getting hypothermia

Winter sports can be extra fun and exciting, as they’re not typically available year-round, which is what also leads to their increased risks. Without routine exposure and practice, people are often more reckless in already dangerous settings. From skiing to snowboarding, winter sports include risks from harsh outdoor elements including frostbite, hypothermia, and severe sun burns. Statistics show:

    • 3.8M people suffered winter sports injuries in the U.S. in 2013
    • 23,500 concussions result from playing winter sports every year (a third among children)
    • 700,000 injury cases from sledding alone, per year

Safety tips:

    • Take frequent breaks and go inside to warm up on particularly chilly days
    • Avoid severe winter weather including icy conditions, frigid temperatures, or blizzards involving low visibility and strong winds
    • Keep company, and never participate in winter sports alone
    • Be sure to properly warmup muscles by stretching and raising body temperature beforehand
    • Wear protective clothing and gear to shield harsh outdoor elements and stay safe
    • Stay alert by avoiding headphones and overly crowded areas, especially if unfamiliar with the area
    • Ice skate in designated skating areas and never skate on river ice or ice that has thawed and refrozen

10. The mall

an ambulance outside of a shopping center

Aside from the annual Black Friday deals and crowds, the full span of the holiday season brings a surplus of shoppers and heightened emotions with “limited editions,” “best sales of the year,” and the “hottest toys.” Since 2006, Black Friday madness has accounted for 12 deaths and 117 injuries including the 2008 trampling death of a Walmart employee and numerous mall shootings. Slips, trips, and falls are the most common types of injuries that we see during holiday shopping, but falling objects can also cause serious injury. Aside from the added traffic, extra monetary stress, and long lines, many agree the most dreaded aspect of holiday shopping is the parking. According to the National Safety Council:

  • Two-thirds of drivers may enter shopping centers distracted
  • 1 in 5 accidents happen in parking lots
  • The #1 distraction for parking lot drivers is mobile phones
  • Assaults and muggings are more likely to happen in poorly lit areas like parking lots and bathrooms

Safety tips:

  • Shop ahead and avoid shopping malls days before or after major holidays
  • Visit shopping malls early when they first open to avoid crowds and traffic
  • Have a clear list to keep visits short and as stress-free as possible
  • Park in a less hectic area, even if it means a longer walk to the entrance
  • Avoid distractions while driving (e.g., phones, other passengers talking, etc.)
  • Stay calm and avoid upsetting interactions with other drivers

11. Poisonous plants

a dog eating a plant he shouldn't be eating

A number of holiday plants are not only breathtaking with beauty but also contain sentimental value in that they represent “the most wonderful time of the year” for many. While seasonal and beautiful, some of the holiday season’s most infamous plants are dangerous when ingested. This is a fairly well-known fact for most adults, but children and pets are often harmed by these poisonous plants every holiday season.

The most common holiday plants to stay cautious of include: Jerusalem cherry, poinsettias, holly and mistletoe, lilies and daffodils, and amaryllis

Safety tips:

  • Use artificial replications of poisonous plants
  • Keep real plants out of reach of children and pets
  • Never leave children or pets unattended around poisonous plants
  • Have instructions available (along with your pet’s veterinarian’s information) for pet sitters in case of emergency
  • If your child ingests a poisonous plant, contact your local poison control center immediately

12. Heart attacks

illustration of a woman suffering chest pain in a bathroom

The holidays bring an abundance of joy, good company, and festivities but also extra stress, food, and drinking. While many use the holidays as an excuse to splurge on big purchases, this is also true with binge eating and alcohol consumption. For those with existing heart issues, this time of year can be especially dangerous.

Holiday heart syndrome is even known to occur in healthy individuals. This syndrome is caused by the occurrence of heart arrhythmia (most frequently atrial fibrillation) after bouts of binge drinking. The first appearance of holiday heart syndrome in the medical literature occurred in 1978. In the research, doctors described the prevalence of cardiac rhythm disorders related to binge drinking that frequently occurred during—you guessed it—the holidays. Last year, another study found that heart attack risk spiked 15% during the Christmas/New Year holidays. Did you know that severe indigestion can mimic heart attack symptoms? That’s one more reason for visits to the emergency department.

Safety tips:

  • Stick to established dietary restrictions during the holiday season
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Go for a walk after dinner
  • Keep stress to a minimum by planning as much as possible
  • Remove unhealthy leftovers from the home