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5 holiday health hazards (and how to avoid them)

5 minute read
Person shoveling snow

Don’t let minor injuries ruin the fun this season. Stay safe by steering clear of these dangers.

Rosemary Black

By Rosemary Black

Winter is a time for food, family and fun. Unfortunately, along with the good times come some very real safety hazards in your home and yard. No one wants to slip on the ice, take a spill when you’re hanging decorations or burn their hand cooking a holiday feast.

Here are 5 seasonal hazards to watch for — and ways to treat minor injuries if you do get hurt.

Hazard #1: Shoveling snow

For many people, shoveling snow is simply part of wintertime. But it pays to approach the job with caution (or have someone else do it for you).

Why it could be dangerous: Shoveling can lead to back and shoulder injuries. And in more dire situations, it can also increase your risk of a heart attack.

Safety tips: Start small — and early. Shovel several times during a snowstorm to lighten your load at the end. To prevent back strain, bend your knees and push up with your legs. That’s the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If you are older and have coronary disease, have someone do it for you,” says Nicholas E. Mazur, DO. He’s a physician of emergency medicine at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva, Illinois. The combination of cold temperatures and strenuous exercise can trigger a heart attack.

Treatment: If you feel achy, you’ve probably strained one or more muscles. Apply ice — not heat — and take an OTC medication such as ibuprofen (Advil®) or acetaminophen (Tylenol®). Expect some soreness in your back, shoulders and legs.

If you’re in extreme pain or have numbness or tingling in a limb, you should head to a hospital, says Dr. Mazur.

You can get OTC pain relievers at the Optum Store — all from the comfort of home. Start exploring.

Hazard #2: Slipping and falling on ice

Depending on what part of the country you live in, the holiday season may be very icy.

Why it could be dangerous: Many falls are nothing to worry about. But falling on ice can lead to a concussion or broken bone. And your risk of serious injury goes up as you age. You could fracture your hip, wrist, ankle or arm.

Safety tips: Salt sidewalks, steps and your driveway. Be mindful of areas where the ice can thaw and then refreeze. That can result in black ice. And be sure to wear snow boots with good traction.

If you’re older, have someone help you if you must walk on an icy spot.

Treatment: Even if you know you’re not badly hurt, you might end up with a bruised knee or tailbone. Manage the pain with ibuprofen or acetaminophen and an ice pack. The ice pack is most important at the beginning of your recuperation, Dr. Mazur notes. After the first few days, you can alternate heat and ice. But applying heat too soon causes inflammation.

Hazard #3: Climbing a ladder

When you decorate your home, you may need to use a ladder to hang lights.

Why it could be dangerous: If you fall, you could hit your head or break a bone. “I see a lot of people in the emergency room who fall while hanging decorations,” says Hannah Goldberg, MD. She specializes in primary care and emergency medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland.

Safety tips: Always have a spotter when you’re on a ladder. “You need someone watching you and telling you if the ground isn’t stable or if you need to position the ladder differently,” says Dr. Mazur. Don’t use a ladder that’s taller than 10 feet.

Treatment: If you do slip from a ladder, assess your injury. If you hit your head or think you’ve broken a bone, have someone take you to the hospital, or call 911. That’s especially important if you take blood thinners, which increase your risk of bleeding.

For minor bumps or bruises, take acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Even if your injury feels like no big deal, it’s a good idea to call your doctor.

Hazard #4: Slicing or chopping food

Preparing a big family dinner? Take extra care when you’re using kitchen knives.

Why it could be dangerous: If your knife slips, you could give yourself a serious cut.

Safety tips: Maybe you’re chopping veggies for a side dish, carving a turkey or slicing a roast. Be sure to use a cutting board that won’t slip on the counter. Dry your hands so that you have a good grip on the knife. Cut slowly and carefully and keep your fingers out of the way.

A sharp blade is also important. “You are more likely to have an accident with a dull knife,” says Dr. Goldberg.

Treatment: If you cut yourself, apply pressure with a clean cloth to stop the bleeding. Do this for 10 minutes. If you’re still bleeding heavily after 5 or 10 minutes, or if you see fat or muscle, head to urgent care or the emergency room. You’ll need stitches.

Also, if you have a serious cut and have not had a tetanus shot in the past 5 years, tell your doctor.

Hazard #5: Burning your hand while baking

From peanut butter blossoms to shortbread cookies, baking is a big part of the season.

Why it could be dangerous: Burns are painful. And deeper, more severe burns can lead to scarring or infection.

Safety tips: Pull out the oven rack first, instead of reaching inside a hot oven. And wear well-padded oven mitts. (Keep kids away from hot baking sheets, too.)

Treatment: A first-degree burn will make your skin red, but the pain will be bearable. Run cool water over it for up to 15 minutes. “That takes some of the energy out of the burn so it doesn’t damage the tissues as much,” Dr. Goldberg says.

For a second- or third-degree burn, you need to head to the emergency room. If you notice blistering, skin loss or oozing, you probably have a second-degree burn. A third-degree burn is painless, but don’t be fooled — it’s due to nerve damage.

Be prepared with a first-aid kit

It’s smart to be ready for accidents year-round, not just during the holidays. The American Red Cross suggests that you stock your first-aid kit with these items:

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Additional sources
Safe snow shoveling: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). “5 Ways to Prepare Your Health to Shovel Snow”
First-aid supplies: American Red Cross (n.d.). “Make a First Aid Kit”