'Tis the Season to Be Cautious

by Enass N. Rickards, M.D., Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla

Ho, ho, help!
It’s that time of year—time to put up the holiday lights, trim the Christmas tree light holiday candles. Unfortunately, it’s also the time when hospital emergency rooms around the country gear up for an influx of injuries resulting from holiday decorating efforts.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 8,700 people report to the ER each year with holiday-related injuries including falls, broken bones, cuts and scrapes, burns and electric shocks. Nearly 100 people are injured or killed in Christmas tree fires—not to mention the damage done to their homes and property.

Of course, no one is recommending that you bypass the holiday decorations this year. However, take a few precautions, use common sense, and keep the following tips in mind to help you enjoy a safe and beautiful holiday season.

O Tannebaum
Both real and artificial trees can be dazzling when draped in lights and ornaments, but each poses potential dangers. If you decide on the real thing, be sure to get one that is fresh; the needles should be green, pliable, and not fall off in droves when you shake the tree. Set the tree up far from high-traffic areas in your home and away from candles, radiators, fireplaces and smokers. And, make sure the base is always filled with water. Real trees dry out very quickly indoors, and if you have the heat on in your home, you’re essentially “cooking” the tree. A dry Christmas tree can go up in flames in a matter of seconds, and it burns very hot. Don’t chop the tree into firewood after the holidays, either—the wood burns too hot to be safely used in a fireplace.

Artificial trees have come a long way from the fake-looking boxy structures of the past. Now they come fully decorated, and are often on wheels so you can just roll them out every December. However, some can easily tip over. Check for sturdiness before you buy, and choose one labeled “Fire Resistant.” (It can still catch fire, but should resist burning if it does.)

If you have small children or curious pets, keep the lower branches free of small ornaments (especially ones that look like candy) or other potential choke hazards. Don’t add preservatives or other chemicals to the water of real trees if there is a possibility your children or pets may take a drink.

Deck the Halls
Broken bones and other injuries caused by falls from ladders are some of the most common types of holiday-related mishaps we see. If you can, hire a professional to hang your lights. If you must get up on the roof yourself, be sure you have someone with you to hold the ladder, make sure it is firmly on the ground, and don’t stand on the top two rungs. Keep in mind that ice isn’t the only thing that creates a slippery roof. In Southern California, roof tiles often can be slick from moss, wet ocean air or morning mist.

Indoors or out, use only lights that have been tested and approved by an independent testing agency. If you plan to hang them outside, make sure they are labeled for outdoor use. Check each set of lights every year for damaged sockets, frayed or exposed wires, or missing lights. A faulty socket or worn wire can lead to a fire. It’s not worth the risk—if your lights don’t pass the test, toss them. When you leave the house or go to bed, turn out the lights to prevent fire from an electric surge or short.

If you have a metallic tree, don’t use electric lights. The tree could become charged with electricity from damaged lights, and could actually electrocute someone who touches it.
Candles start 10,000 house fires a year. Display yours where they won’t get knocked over, and away from anything flammable. Check them often and remember to blow them out before you go to bed or leave home.

Finally, carefully read and follow the directions on any type of snow spray, firelogs or any other holiday decorations before you use them. Have a safe, enjoyable holiday season.

Enass N. Rickards, M.D.,_is Chief of Orthopedic Surgery at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. __For more information about maintaining a healthy lifestyle or for a physician referral, call 1-800-SCRIPPS._