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Holiday-related injuries

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By Erin A. Bills, MPH Contributor

Not only does December bring Santa and his eight reindeer, it also brings the potential for holiday-related injuries. Whether you’re stringing lights in the grand tradition of Clark W. Griswold, rolling the dice at buffet tables, or simply baking Christmas cookies, you may be popping the cork on a bottle of holiday health hazards.

Every year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 17,000 emergency department visits for holiday-related injuries. A significant percentage of these result from decorating. At your next holiday gathering, consider these simple tips to keep from fa-la-la-ing apart. It’s all fun and reindeer games until someone gets hurt.

If you’re not Santa Claus, leave the rooftop work to the elves or professional home decorators in your area. Christmas lights are to blame for many slips, sprains, strains and shocks. Teetering on a ladder haphazardly perched atop a snowy, slippery surface has the obvious risk of falling.

Opt for LED lights and appropriately utilize electrical outlets by using a power strip and limiting the number of strings used per outlet. If overstuffing electrical outlets with old strings of lights is more your style, you may find yourself in a hair raising situation. The risk of electrical shock and fires caused by holiday lights drastically increases during the holiday season.

Trees, real or artificial, should be placed away from heat sources, watered daily (if real), and kept away from small children and pets. O Tannenbaum, that seasonal symbol of joy and happiness, comes with its own unique health risk factors. If ingested, artificial tree parts may present a choking hazard, while real pine needles may trigger allergic reactions.

Poinsettias and mistletoe: traditional and toxic. These holiday plants are naturally poisonous if ingested. Another bonus? Mistletoe, that opportunistic plant, gives many the courage to pucker up and spread communicable diseases this time of year. Spare your Christmas crush the seasonal sniffles and offer a cookie from the holiday buffet table instead.

Holiday baking, cooking, and feasting might be one of the biggest holiday health risk of all. Not so fast! Food borne illness is not the way to spread holiday cheer. Ensure that food is cooked thoroughly and kept at the proper temperature to decrease the risk of making others sick. Cuts and burns during the food preparation process might also place you on a fast track in the front wheel drive sleigh to the emergency department.

You may be starting to think ‘oh, what fun the holidays are not.’ Or that perhaps this holiday health Grinch is a fun hater. Maybe it’s time we take a look at some reindeer games.

When taking the family out for some holiday sledding its important to remember that sledding hills are named just like ski runs. Remember your favorite childhood sledding hill? Was it Devil’s Drop, Suicide Slide, Back Breaker, or something similar? Unless you’re an experienced sledder on familiar terrain, think before you drop in to an appropriately named black diamond sledding run. Remember, adults don’t bounce up off of the ground as well as 10-year-olds. Your tailbone and both your shoulders may thank you.

Football and skiing are responsible for many sports-related injuries during the holiday season. There is high risk for football injury when not playing with appropriate equipment, such as when tackling your friend in the living room to celebrate your college team’s bowl win, or when “touch” football degenerates into “tackle” football.

If you’re on vacation or up on the ski hill for the first time this year, start slow. Make a few runs on some easier runs before riding the tram and dropping in to the Big Couloir in early season conditions. Take a lesson if you need one, make sure your equipment is in reasonable condition, and remember ski runs are named just like sledding runs. Depending on your ability, it might be better to start out on Southern Comfort before skiing the Dictators with your mom who is on vacation from the ranch out in Forsyth, Mont.

After reading this, you might think the holiday season is the riskiest time of year. One reason is the fact that people are getting out and doing things with their friends and families. After all, it wouldn’t be the holidays if someone didn’t say, “hold my beer and watch this.”

Erin A. Bills, MPH, works with the Montana Office of Rural Health/Area Health Education Center at MSU. She lives in Big Sky and is dedicated to improving the health of Montana’s rural populations by developing effective preventive health policy. Follow her blog at

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