Are You At Risk for These Holiday Health Hazards?

Every year, there are more falls from ladders, more fires and more food-related illnesses just ahead of ‘ and during ‘ the holiday season. Here’s how to avoid these common holiday health risks

Are You At Risk for These Holiday Health Hazards?

Source: Best Health magazine, November/December 2015

Margaret Keresteci should have known better. Working for a health organization that gathers statistics on injuries, she was well aware of the many mishaps that occur during the holidays.

Nevertheless, one winter she was so anxious to get her outside Christmas lights up that she hauled out a ladder ‘ in the dark ‘ climbed to the top and then leaned precariously to one side to hang the lights.

The next thing she knew, she was lying on the ground with two broken wrists and a gash to her head. No one was home, so, in terrible pain, Keresteci made her way to a nearby house, where she summoned help by banging on the door with her elbow.

It was a dangerous ‘ and embarrassing ‘ incident for her.

‘I know better now,’ says Keresteci, who suffered permanent damage to one wrist as a result of her fall. Her story is a kind of perfect storm of holiday health hazards: over-the-top decorating, mind-altering stress, breakneck pace. It’s no wonder there are typically more falls from ladders, more fires and more food-related illnesses just before and during the holiday season than at any other time of the year.

The good news is that most of these injuries are preventable. Here, then, is a guide to what you should look out for when greeting the season.

Superhero Syndrome

Dr. Louis Francescutti, an emergency-room physician at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital and a professor and injury researcher at the University of Alberta, says he treats injuries like Keresteci’s every year.

‘Whoever draws the Christmas shift usually has a story to tell,’ he says. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, ladder injuries are so common that in 2014, in Ontario alone, they sent more than 130 people to hospital emergency rooms during November’s pre-Christmas cheer.

Stay-safe secret: If you’re using a ladder outdoors, do so during daylight hours, and clear away snow or ice before setting it down. Use the Electrical Utilities Safety Association of Ontario’s safe-practice guide: Never stand on a rung higher than fourth from the top, and don’t climb up or down while carrying anything. Instead, place lights or other items in a container and raise and lower them by rope while maintaining three-point contact with the ladder: one hand/two feet or two hands/one foot. Make sure you have a spotter, too.

Ticker Trouble

More people die of heart attacks over the holidays than during any other time of year. Part of the problem is that some heart attack symptoms are similar to those of indigestion ‘ another seasonal risk ‘ and many people would rather blame their discomfort on gluttony than interrupt a party by dashing off to the ER.

‘If you’ve lived your whole life without indigestion and all of a sudden you’re suffering from it, you need to think that it could be your heart,’ warns Dr. Beth Abramson, a Toronto cardiologist and spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

And the weather doesn’t help either. Low temperatures, especially if coupled with snow shovelling, can be deadly. Cold can slow blood flow to the heart by tightening blood vessels (interestingly, nitroglycerine medication does the opposite), while exercise increases the heart’s need for blood and oxygen. Therefore, you may be in a situation where the supply of blood to the heart is reduced during a time of increased need ‘ a recipe for a heart attack.

‘When you’re shovelling and breathing in cold air ‘ especially if you are overweight and out of shape or have risk factors for heart disease ‘ you’re putting yourself at risk,’ says Dr. Abramson.

Then there’s ‘holiday heart syndrome,’ a fast, irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation that can be caused by drinking too much alcohol in a short time.

Stay-safe secret: Even doctors can’t be sure, by observation alone, when someone’s having a heart attack, so you’re probably not going to figure it out on your own. While pressure on the chest is the most common symptom, a heart attack doesn’t have to be of the dramatic Hollywood variety.

‘Sudden chest, neck, throat, jaw or arm discomfort or shortness of breath or nausea that comes out of the blue needs to be taken seriously,‘ says Dr. Abramson. Family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes and being overweight increase your risk.

‘There are quick and simple tests that can be done in an emergency room to confirm whether you’re having a heart attack,’ says Dr. Abramson. ‘When in doubt, assume the worst.’

Smoke Alarm

Of course Christmas trees are a fire hazard, but the biggest cause of home fires, by far, is cooking, accounting for 20 percent of fires nationwide in 2007.

Another culprit? Candles. Fire statistics collected in Alberta during the holiday season (December 15th to the 31st) over a five year period showed that candle fires doubled compared to the rest of the year.

Stay-safe secret: Never, ever leave stovetop items unattended, and don’t leave candles burning in an empty room. When you do light candles, keep them far from the tree and other flammable items, such as wrapping paper.

Make sure your Christmas tree lights are approved by the Canadian Standards Association (look for the CSA label), and throw out any sets with cracked bulb sockets or damaged wires. Finally, make sure your Christmas tree is watered daily.

Stress Overload

You’ve been waiting in line all day ‘ for a seat in the food court, a parking spot, a copy of that bestselling book or that must-have toy. And there’s your endless to-do list, along with parties, arguments with the family and a busy work schedule. No wonder you’re stressed!

Stay-safe secret:
Simplify. Stop accepting every invitation and trying to see everyone during the holidays, otherwise you’ll burn out.

And don’t try to out-dazzle everyone with extravagant dinners, over-the-top decorating and expensive presents because Christmas isn’t a competition.

Another useful tip? Start your shopping early. Christmas comes on the same date every year, so it’s all about planning. Keep a running list in your wallet of people you plan to buy presents for. That way, you can take advantage of sales throughout the year and avoid the stress of overspending.

Partier’s Remorse

You came, you saw, you drank. If you don’t usually overindulge in alcohol, your body is in for a shock: a painful hangover ‘ oops.

Stay-safe secret:
Holidays and alcohol seem to go hand in hand. Catherine Hardman, executive director of Choices for Change, a Stratford, ON-based alcohol, drug and gambling counselling centre, offers these tips:
‘ Alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic ones
‘ Forget the one-drink-per-hour guideline for preventing hangovers; it isn’t reliable. Instead, have a beverage in your hand at all times (nonalcoholic, if you wish) so attentive friends and hosts will stop asking if they can get you another drink.
‘ Agree to be the designated driver. ‘That gives you an out,’ says Hardman, ‘and people also respect that.’ Moreover, you’ll have a holiday to remember ‘ for all the right reasons.

Killer Turkeys

According to Ben Chapman, who works with the University of Guelph’s Food Safety Network, ‘Undercooked turkey is one of the top 10 foods that make people sick.’ But it’s not just the turkey: Stuffing absorbs the juices inside the bird, so it has to be as thoroughly cooked as the meat.

Eggnog is also notorious for making people sick if it’s left unrefrigerated for too long or made with raw eggs (which can contain salmonella bacteria).

Dr. Francescutti is all too familiar with holiday food misery. ‘An entire family came in with food poisoning,’ he says. ‘They all needed intravenous and rehydration.’

Stay-safe secret:
The Food Safety Network advises cooking an unstuffed turkey to 170°F (77°C) and a stuffed one to 180°F (82°C). Alternatively, cook the stuffing separately. Stuffed or not, always cook a turkey in a 325°F (160°C) oven. Never start cooking it in one place, then transport it to another and finish cooking there. For more safe turkey cooking tips, visit or call 1-866-503-7638.

New-Toy Trouble

Every holiday seaon, Dr. Francescutti treats patients who need their hands or fingers stitched up after they’ve lost a vicious battle with clamshell packaging ‘ the hard, moulded plastic that is sealed around the toy, tool or product you’re anxious to get at.

‘It’s mostly fathers I see who are trying to open packages for others ‘ a little too quickly sometimes,’ he says. Still, one teenager he treated was so excited about a new electronic gadget, he hastily tried to pry open the package with scissors. They slipped and impaled the palm of his hand, landing him in the emergency room.

Stay-safe secret: Dr. Francescutti recommends that an adult place the product on a countertop and carefully run a sharp utility knife around the packaging. To safely get rid of this plastic ‘ with its razor-sharp edges ‘ don’t toss it into the kitchen garbage: Someone could later slice a hand pushing the trash down to compact it ‘ toss it in the blue bin instead. (Check if your recycling depot will accept it first).