Unlike some industries, there really isn’t a “slow season” when it comes to a number of emergency room visits a hospital will see, and as fall leads into winter here in North Texas, a new crop of medical emergencies arrives with it. We talked to Glenn Hardesty, a physician on the emergency department medical staff at Texas Health Arlington and David C. Smith, trauma medical director at Texas Health Fort Worth, about some of the most common injuries trauma services and emergency departments see in the winter months and how you can spend less time at the hospital this holiday season and more time with your family.
When it’s time to decorate the house for the holidays, a ladder is almost always involved, or at least a makeshift ladder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 6,000 people head to the emergency department every year to seek treatment for injuries sustained from falling while decorating for the holidays.
To reduce your risk, choose a sturdy ladder and grab a second person to spot you. Place your ladder a proper distance away from the wall it will rest against — 1 foot for every 4 feet of ladder height is generally a good rule of thumb — and be sure the rungs are clean and slip-resistant. If the weather gets rainy or windy, plan to work another day.
“Falls in general are the number one emergency room issue during the holidays,” Smith said. “There is an uptick in severe falls resulting in broken bones or head injuries during what I call ‘decorating season’.”
Smith emphasized that most of these falls can be prevented if proper ladder safety is exercised.
“One caution is that never use a ladder alone,” he said. “The ladder needs to be appropriately leveled and someone needs to be on the ground holding the ladder and watching the person on it.”
He also listed several other safety concerns, including: never reach while on a ladder, opting to instead move it close to the work you are doing, never use a ladder in any kind of inclement weather, and never use a ladder while or after drinking alcohol. More information about safety while hanging holiday decorations can be found on the website for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and on the National Fire Protection Association’s website.
While ice and snow are uncommon for North Texas, when it occurs many of us are caught off guard. When ice and snow are present, wear shoes with soles that have traction. Also be mindful of icy patches and “black ice” on asphalt. Slips and falls often cause injuries that require immediate medical care.
Shoveling Ice and Snow
Although large amounts of snow are not common in North Texas, there may be a time when you or loved ones find themselves headed out to shovel a pathway into the ice or snow. If you’ve never shoveled snow before, you may be unfamiliar with how labor intensive it can be, and all it takes is one muscle being pulled the wrong way for your back, neck or shoulders to cramp up.
According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2014, more than 200,000 people were treated in ERs, doctors’ offices and clinics for injuries that occurred from shoveling or removing ice and snow manually. The most common injuries reported are sprains and strains, particularly in the back and shoulders, as well as lacerations, fractures and even finger amputations.
When shoveling ice or snow, remember to warm up your muscles first, pace yourself, and use proper equipment and techniques to reduce the risk of injury. And if you have any medical issues, consult with your doctor first before doing any strenuous activity.
Cuts and Burns
The holidays bring families together and cooks to the kitchen. No matter your skill level, one wrong cut or move can land you in the ER with a nasty slice or burn. Also be very careful with grease, especially if you’re considering frying a turkey.
“Just remember that the turkey displaces the oil, so go slowly so you don’t get splattered,” Hardesty said. “And make sure no kids are around.”
Simply slowing down can greatly reduce your chance of cutting or burning yourself.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
As winter sets in, heating the home becomes a priority. Doing so improperly, however, can lead to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Burning fuel produces CO, a colorless, odorless gas that, when present in high concentrations — like in a poorly ventilated room — invades red blood cells, crowding out oxygen. The condition claims the lives of more than 400 Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The number one sign of mild to moderate CO poisoning is a headache; other signs include weakness, fatigue, dizziness and confusion. Chest pain and trouble breathing may occur in severe cases.
A few simple precautions can help keep your family safe from CO. Arrange for a technician to service all fuel-burning appliances once a year, and if you have a chimney, get it inspected for disrepair and ventilation problems. Also install CO detectors near all bedrooms.
If you develop symptoms suspicious for CO poisoning, get fresh air immediately, and call 911.
Tis the season for the cold and flu. The peak of the flu season in Texas varies from year to year but is often boosted during the holiday season. Since children, the elderly and anyone with a weakened immune system are at a higher risk of death from the flu or flu-related complications, it’s important for you and your family to receive an annual flu shot.
If you find yourself coming down with flu-like symptoms, your best bet is to stay home to avoid spreading the virus. The good news is that the flu is typically self-treatable with plenty of rest, clear liquids and over-the-counter medications to combat symptoms. But if you have difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the chest, sudden dizziness, confusion, or severe vomiting, you should head to an ER right away.
According to a national study, heart-related deaths increase by 5 percent during the holiday season, normally peaking on Christmas, the day after Christmas and New Year’s Day. Hardesty attributed this rise to patients overindulging, ignoring dietary restrictions and simply putting off a doctor’s visit until the holiday season is over and everyone has gone home.
The cold weather and emotional stress can also contribute to a heart attack, so piling on layers to avoid exposure to very cold temperatures and steering clear of heart stressors like too much physical activity, anger or stress can help.
Symptoms of a heart attack include:
- Chest discomfort or pain in the upper chest
- Pressure in the chest
- Pain in the left arm or up the right arm
- Pain between the shoulder blades
- Excessive sweating
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
If you or a loved one experiences any of these symptoms act quickly and call 911.
Christmas Present Mishaps
From hoverboards to the old standby BB guns, Christmas presents have a way of landing people in the ER every holiday season, and Hardesty said many Santa wannabes end up in the ER trying to deliver those presents.
“Every year, there seems to be someone who got stuck in a chimney,” he said. “Don’t try to go down the chimney! You’ll never fit!”
To prevent injury due to new presents, Hardesty recommended being very aware of potential threats while also being true to yourself on what you can and cannot do.
When relatives gather during the holidays, especially those who are not used to small children in the house, it can be easy to absentmindedly leave pill boxes or prescriptions out in easy reach, which can lead to accidental ingestion.
Also keep in mind that children can accidentally swallow small objects like bulbs from the Christmas tree and decorations on presents to small parts on toys.
Following these tips can help you and your family dash through the snow while laughing all the way this winter, injury-free.