'Tis the Season for Injuries

There’s no doubt about it – we’re officially in the middle of the 2013 holiday season.

While this time of year is full of family vacations, festive gatherings, food and decorations galore, it’s also filled with trips to urgent care centers and emergency rooms to overcome illnesses and injuries related to these seasonal activities.

So how can you protect yourself and your family from falling victim to holiday hazards?  Health, Life & Community looked for advice from safety experts and asked two emergency room doctors what they see in the ER related to the holidays to help you avoid setting an unwanted holiday tradition – a trip to the hospital.

Motor Vehicle Accidents

The number one cause of injury seen in the ER during the holidays is vehicle crashes, according to Otto Vega, M.D., Homestead Hospital’s medical director of the Adult Emergency Center.  And, he adds, many of those accidents are caused by impaired or distracted drivers, a fact substantiated by research conducted for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), which determined that fatal motor vehicle accidents increased by 40 percent during Christmas and New Year’s holidays, compared to the rest of December.

Dr. Vega speaks passionately about preventing accidents by using common sense.

“Don’t drink or use drugs and then drive a car,” he said.  “And put down your cell phone, while in the car.  The 4 to 5 seconds you are distracted dialing the phone or texting greatly increases your chances of being involved in an accident.”

In fact, the NHTSA reports that in 2011, more than 3,300 people died and 387,000 suffered injuries in automobile crashes involving a driver who was texting or using an electronic device in the car.

Decorating Incidents

Dr. Vega also points to falls, burns, fires and electrocutions as happening more frequently during the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day from people carelessly decorating and preparing for the holidays.

“This time of year, we see many people who have fallen off ladders,” he said.  “These falls can cause broken bones, bruises, cuts and concussions.”

Dr. Vega says burns from preparing food peak at Thanksgiving, but also occur during Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year celebrations.

Injuries from house fires also occur more often this time of year, he says, since people use space heaters during cooler weather and decorate with candles.

Electrocutions happen when people install outdated decorative lights with frayed wires, or use indoor lights outside and fail to properly ground them in the appropriate electrical outlet.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission publishes its “Holiday Decoration Safety Tips” to remind people how to avoid injury or death when choosing and displaying decorations.

Foodborne Illness

Holiday celebrations go hand-in-hand with food.  Dr. Vega recommends using common sense, too, when preparing food or eating at unfamiliar establishments or at holiday parties.

The National Safety Council offers these tips to prevent illness from food:

• Wash your hands before, during and after food preparation to prevent the spread of bacteria like E. coli and salmonella.
• Clean kitchen surfaces with paper towels or disposable cleaning wipes instead of sponges or cloths, which can spread bacteria and viruses.
• Thaw food in the refrigerator or microwave.
• Use a thermometer to determine whether a food’s optimal internal temperature has been reached.
• Reheat leftovers to at least 165°F to kill harmful bacteria.
• Cover and refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours of cooking.

Preventing Injuries to Children

Parents with young children must be especially vigilant this time of year to prevent injury to them, says Fernando Mendoza, M.D., medical director of the Children’s Emergency Center at Baptist Children’s Hospital and of Pediatric Emergency Services for West Kendall Baptist Hospital.

Unlike children in colder climates who remain indoors during their holiday break, he says, South Florida children and their parents take advantage of the milder temperatures by being active outdoors.  Equipped with holiday gifts, like bicycles, skateboards and scooters, and free time from school, kids get adventurous.

“Some of the more common injuries we see in the Emergency Centers this time of year are broken bones from falls, scrapes, bruises and cuts that need stitches,” he said.  “These usually come from increased outdoor activities.”

Motorized Toys

Dr. Mendoza warns parents to be especially watchful of kids who play on motorized toys, like go-carts, mini bikes and scooters.  There’s increased severity of injuries from those toys, he says.  Helmets and protective gear go a long way in protecting kids using those vehicles.

Swimming Pools

He adds swimming pools to the potential holiday dangers.

“In South Florida, there is no shortage of swimming pools, and they are dangerous year around,” he said.  “We, unfortunately, see a lot of drowning and submersion injuries this time of year, too, because parents take down pool fences during gatherings, even when there are children around.”

He recommends parents regularly get trained in CPR.


Toys and decorations with small parts pose a serious choking hazard for kids this time of year.

The American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents that toys and decorations with small parts pose a serious choking hazard for kids.

Dr. Mendoza advises parents to also learn first aid for choking.  He recommends that parents choose age-appropriate toys for their children and pay special attention to little ones living with older siblings to prevent sharing of toys across age groups.

Button Batteries and Magnets

Resource magazine recently reported that the number of children injured or killed by button batteries has quadrupled over five years.  These batteries are often found in musical greeting cards, remote controls, bathroom scales and other household items.  If swallowed, these batteries can be choked on, become lodged in a child’s esophagus or cause injury to the digestive system that can lead to death, if not immediately removed.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also warns parents of the dangers of magnets when swallowed.

Dr. Mendoza says high-potency magnets that are found in some toys, jewelry and desk decorations can cause serious injury and death when swallowed, especially in pairs.  The magnets seek out their match, burrowing into and perforating the walls of the intestines, creating a life-threatening emergency.

“If you suspect your child has swallowed a battery or magnets, seek immediate emergency care,” he advises.


Like food, holiday celebrations come with alcohol consumption.

“Be careful of leaving alcoholic beverages unattended at gatherings where children are present,” Dr. Mendoza advises.  “Seemingly small amounts of alcohol can have devastating and deadly effects on children.”

Distractions abound this time of year, but both Dr. Mendoza and Dr. Vega say extra vigilance and common sense can go a long way in protecting ourselves and our loved ones from holiday hazards.  Reminders like these will hopefully save lives and ensure Happy Holidays to all.

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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