by Angela Haupt
The most wonderful time of the year—or the most hazardous? Depends how often you interact with ladders, fast-flying sleds, dusty decorations, overloaded shopping bags, and undercooked turkeys. To keep the holiday spirit more merry than frightful, watch out for these seasonal risks.
1) Sledding recklessly- Whizzing down a snow-covered hill may be exhilarating, but roughly 33,000 people a year are treated in emergency rooms for sledding-related injuries. Collisions are typically the cause, reports the nonprofit National Safety Council. Fractures, cuts, and bruises are the most common injuries, though more serious damage is possible. "I've seen bleeds, organ injuries, and even some fatalities," says Ryan Stanton, an emergency-room physician in Lexington, Ky. "A sled doesn't provide you with any protection, so when that plastic hits a tree, a fence, or a pole, the acceleration carries you into it." That's why it's smart to wear a bicycle helmet while sledding (or skiing, snow tubing, or snowboarding). Avoid rocky hills and areas dotted with trees, fences, utility poles, or other obstacles. Never sled head-first, and sit up instead of lying on your back. And if the sled begins flying out of control, roll off, Stanton says.
2) Catching a germ- Flu and other bugs are transmitted through saliva, so smooching underneath the mistletoe could lead to an unhealthy holiday. Skip the lip lock and go for an air kiss instead, suggest researchers at Ryerson University in Toronto. To further protect yourself from germs, wave hello at parties instead of hugging or shaking hands. Carry hand sanitizer and wash your hands before and after digging into appetizers to avoid infecting others.
3) Taking a fall- Nearly 6,000 victims of decorating-related falls head to emergency rooms each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Most of these accidents occur while hanging lights outside or placing ornaments atop Christmas trees. "We see people getting up on ladders for the first time in a year, and they lose their footing and fall," Stanton says. Most common are cuts, bruises, and broken bones, though tumbling from a roof onto, say, concrete, fences, or trees can be fatal. To protect yourself, always use a sturdy ladder—even indoors, since climbing on chairs, desks, and other furniture can be risky. Before stepping onto a ladder, make sure it's positioned on flat ground and that its rungs are dry. And only use it outdoors during daylight hours.
4) Shopping till you drop- Lugging heavy bags can strain your back and joints, causing next-day pain and stiffness. So don't be surprised if you wake up the morning after a shopping trip feeling like you can't move, Stanton says. "People tend to carry their keys in one hand, and seven bags in the other," he says. "That imbalance—that strain on one side of the back—causes injuries."
5) Dying of cold- Temperature drop is linked to higher risk of heart attack. British researchers recently reported that each 1-degree Celsius drop in temperature on a single day is associated with about 200 additional heart attacks in the U.K. The findings are based on more than 84,000 hospital admissions between 2003 and 2006, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal. That's why it's smart to wear warm, layered clothing and to keep homes sufficiently heated, the study authors say. But frigid temperatures aren't the only driver of the season's heightened heart attack risk. Some people ignore symptoms rather than interrupt holiday gatherings; others mistake chest pain for indigestion after heavy, festive meals. Shoveling snow is another culprit, particularly among people who aren't ordinarily active, Stanton says. Think twice about clearing the driveway if you have a history of heart disease or high blood pressure, or if you're a smoker. If you do decide to shovel, avoid stimulants like caffeine or nicotine, which can stress the heart.
6) Developing food poisoning- Holiday feasts call for indulgence, which can lead to more than a bulging belly. Post-meal trips to the emergency room are common, says Stanton, who has treated entire families for food-borne illnesses caused by undercooked turkey or spoiled eggnog. Turkeys should be thawed in the refrigerator, never on the kitchen counter, to prevent bacteria from festering. Don't stuff turkeys or chickens in advance, or if you must, make sure the stuffing is loosely packed; birds packed too tightly may not cook properly. And make sure poultry, meat, dairy products, and eggnog don't sit at room temperature for more than two hours, Stanton says. Use a cooler to keep food from going bad while traveling to holiday gatherings.
7) Having an allergic reaction to dirty decorations- Ornaments stored in the basement or attic will likely be coated with dust and other allergens, says James Sublett, a fellow with the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Sorting through these decorations—and dragging them from room to room—could trigger sniffling, sneezing, headaches, or fatigue. Remove dust by wiping ornaments with a dry cloth, since moisture attracts dust and mold, Sublett says. Once the season has passed, either seal decorations in a plastic bag or store them in an airtight container, rather than in a cardboard box, which is more likely to absorb moisture.
8) Going heavy on the salt- Holiday meals are often saturated with salt, which can aggravate—or unmask—heart problems. Salt causes water retention, so as fluid is drawn from the body into the blood, the heart's workload increases. That can lead to symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pains, and sweating, particularly for those with heart failure and high blood pressure, says cardiologist Marc Klapholz of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. "There's no question that after people have a large, celebratory-type meal, we see more patients whose heart conditions are exacerbated, and it's because of that extra salt intake," he says. People with heart conditions should consume no more than 2 grams of salt a day, and those with high blood pressure should stick to 3 grams or less. To lower your intake, replace table salt and high-sodium condiments like ketchup and mustard with herbs, spices, and other natural flavorings, Klapholz says. Avoid cured and smoked meats, processed and canned foods, and salty snacks like cheese, pretzels, and nuts.
9) Imitating Santa- Mr. Claus is a "public health pariah," Australian researchers declared last year in the British Medical Journal's annual Christmas issue. Indeed, Santa prefers cookies over carrots, has a big belly, smokes cigars, and jumps from roof to roof. Plus, he goes cheek to cheek with sniffling, coughing kids during mall visits, says study author Nathan Grills, who donned a Santa suit for a day in the name of research. "I was kissed and hugged by snotty-nosed kids at each performance and was never offered alcohol swabs to wipe my rosy cheeks between clients," he wrote in the BMJ. "Unsuspecting little Johnny gets to sit on Santa's lap, but as well as his present, he gets H1N1 influenza." In the report, Grills proposes Santa get a makeover by slimming down and cycling across the skies instead of being chauffeured in a sleigh. The chance of that happening? Ho, ho, ho.