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Holiday Health Hazards That I Didn’t See on the News This Year

Christmas Week!

The start of winter holidays for kids and many adults. Usually by this time in the calendar I’ve seen only about 248 news segments and articles about holiday health hazards, but I guess for the Winter of 2017 *other* headlines are more newsworthy. I haven’t seen a single one describing all the “toxic effects of eating mistletoe”. This week I almost re-posted my previously written blog on “fake news” and evidence-based medicine just so I could have another opportunity to say “evidence based” in a public forum, but seeing as I’ve just now done that twice, how about I fill in for the local news and fire up a quick review of some elements of the holiday that can be hazardous; some that might not immediately come to your mind.


Lots to talk about here. The obvious hazard is that anyone can get food poisoning from dishes that have been left out for too long (increased risk at longer than 2 hours or so). This is a real risk. Every year I see people with enough vomiting and diarrhea crammed into a 24-hour period than most of us have experienced in a lifetime, and often during the holidays it’s related to a recent holiday party. There’s no medicine to get rid of most of these short lived but most unpleasant illnesses; it’s simply fluids and supportive care, so the best way to handle them is NOT TO GET SICK IN THE FIRST PLACE. So: politely find out how long foods have been sitting out at room temperature, and consider avoiding dairy and meats that have been there awhile. If you are preparing food for a crowd, be vigilant about handwashing and washing knives and cutting boards in between different types of food to avoid contamination.

Don’t forget cuts and burns either. (More from Dr. Obvious, right-?) Make sure you don’t get caught up in so much celebrating that you rush through cutting your foods or don’t have your pot holders at the ready when you pull your pie out of the oven. It happens! I’ve seen circumferential, third degree finger and hand burns on people who reflexively grabbed a very hot dish. And kids are even more likely to suffer a burn like this. (Not a food, but this goes for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa candles too-)

But you know all that. The other side of this category is that with all the rich, holiday foods and treats there’s typically an increase in numbers of heart attacks, diabetic crises, and strokes as well. If you’ve got diabetes, or high blood pressure, or high cholesterol be extra careful not to worsen your condition by overindulging. It could have tragic consequences. Your kids need ya.

holiday photo with mom and daugher wearing santa hats


Small pieces, broken glass, and even the plastic packaging on toys can cause an array of injuries from lacerations to ingestions. Keep a child’s developmental level in mind when purchasing gifts and follow the general age guidelines on the packaging if you’re not sure.

Button batteries and tiny magnets are extremely dangerous. This has been publicized widely but this is most often a surgical emergency if they are swallowed. Button batteries can destroy the lining of the esophagus in a matter of hours and magnets, especially in pairs, can twist the intestines and cause permanent damage.

small battery on finger


More people are on the go, and with that comes an increase in motor vehicle collisions. Be sure that your children are secured appropriately in car seats, that the driver isn’t over-tired, and that weather conditions are safe for driving. Not terribly original material here, but I have to say it based on the types and sheer volume of injuries I see year after year.

picture of kids in car with holiday hats

Plant Decorations.

This is the interesting one. Let’s do a pick list of dangerous and not.

Poinsettias: irritating but not dangerous if a little bit (like not the whole plant) is ingested. There may be some stomach irritation and nausea or vomiting, but truly toxic?  NO.

Holly Berries: The National Capital Poison Center states that even two berries can be toxic to children, causing vomiting and drowsiness. The good news is that with the prickly leaves it’s relatively uncommon for kids to choose to eat these, but isolated berries on the floor are another situation altogether. Be mindful of these if you have cut holly boughs inside. POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS

Mistletoe: Most American mistletoe is irritating but not truly toxic. It’s in the same irritating category as poinsettias above. Poisonous? NO

red flowers


Ah, the most complicated of all the categories. It’s a bit ironic that this season is all about joy and celebration and yet it occurs during a time when lots of people are sick, anxious, and stressed. It’s flu season; viruses are everywhere, and the world feels run down. If you have a newborn think twice before visiting people who are sick. Wash hands and cough into your elbow. Keep hand sanitizer with you and resolve not to share cups and hugs and kisses. Avoiding touching your nose and eyes can only add to your quest to remain infection free. That being said, the amount of time kids will follow this directive = 0, but there’s no downside to trying.

The holidays are a lonely time for many people and cases of acute depression spike. Pause for a minute; is there someone you know who might be vulnerable that you could reach out to just to check on? A simple act can go a long way. Family dynamics are complex, and setting expectations for yourself and your kids about “how holiday events often go” can sometimes avoid unhappy blowback during a celebration.

couple sitting by beach with hooded sweatshirts

As hard as it is, I always encourage parents (and I try myself!) to do their best to maintain as usual a daily routine as possible. From sleeping to exercise to eating, everyone is happier, behaves better, and acts nicer when they’re not tired, stir-crazy, bouncing off the walls, or managing mood swings from all the intensity.

As I’m finishing this, a few of you are commenting on my Facebook page about some other hazards seen commonly this year, and I’m glad to have the extra input as my list above hits mostly the highlights. I’m grateful for all of you who are coming along with me on this digital health journey, and I wish you the happiest, healthiest, illness-and-injury-free winter holiday ever. After the New Year let’s all weigh in and see how we did.

Season’s Greetings to you all!

-Dr. C

seasons greetings in script

Keep Reading! The Yellow River…by I.P. Freely (and other ways we look for answers in the urine)