During the holidays, emergency rooms across the country see a large influx of patients. Amid the festivities and celebrations of the season, there also are more instances of illness, accidental injury and other health hazards.

“ER visits increase by about 20 percent in the winter months,” said Tiama Friend, MD, emergency medicine physician at ER at The Lakes, a department of Southern Hills Hospital and Medical Center. While enjoying the holidays this year, be sure you’re taking precautions to keep you and your loved ones safe.

Why is there an increase around the holidays?

“By far, the greatest increase in illnesses seen in the ER are viral-related,” Friend said. Travel, shopping, partying and crowded public spaces often mean a higher exposure to germs. Meanwhile, exhaustion, stress and drinking can lead to a weakened immune system. This makes people far more susceptible to viruses and viral-related illness.

“Viruses can cause a host of problems, including cough, sore throat, body aches, runny nose, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. Viruses also can worsen pre-existing medical conditions for some patients, such as those with lung or heart disease,” Friend said.

Beyond illness, the litany of distractions and chaotic atmospheres that are common during the holidays can make people more prone to accidental injury, such as cuts, burns and falls. House fires, carbon monoxide poisonings and car accidents also are more frequent during the winter months.

1. Take preventive measures against illness: Get a flu shot, be sure to wash your hands regularly and avoid putting too much strain on your immune system by maintaining healthy habits, eating nutritious meals and getting at least eight hours of sleep every night.

2. Don’t drink to excess: Overindulging in alcohol can weaken your immune system and impair your judgment, making you more vulnerable to accidental injury. Further, drinking and driving fatalities increase during the holidays. Avoid drinking heavily, and never drive when you’ve had too much to drink.

3. Be careful while preparing meals: “The ER sees an increase of patients with lacerations during the holiday season, and these injuries often are suffered while cooking,” Friend said. She also noted that burns were common from ovens, stovetops and deep fryers. Take your time while preparing meals and always wear proper hand protection when handling hot dishes.

4. Be safe while decorating: Falling injuries are common during the holidays as people use ladders to hang lights, decorate the Christmas tree and put up other yuletide trimmings, such as mistletoe. If you’re using a ladder, be sure it’s on a firm, level surface and is positioned properly to avoid your having to lean or reach too far. It’s also a good idea to have someone there to help spot you and hold the ladder steady if necessary.

5. Check your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors: “Dry Christmas trees, heaters and faulty wiring can cause house fires during this time of year. Carbon monoxide poisonings increase during the winter months, as well,” Friend said. Be sure your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are in good working condition, and keep the tree well-hydrated to prevent the needles from becoming too brittle.

Don’t ignore your symptoms because you’re busy

The holiday season is a crazy time for many of us — between wacky travel schedules, jam-packed social calendars and familial obligations, it may seem like there isn’t time for much else. But if you’re feeling sick, don’t ignore your symptoms because a trip to the doctor or ER seems inconvenient.

Illness can escalate quickly, especially for those with pre-existing conditions, so be sure to make your health a high priority.

Avoid food contamination

“Food poisoning can result from improperly prepared food and the contamination of raw meat on surfaces that are used to prepare other foods,” Friend said.

After cooking meat or eggs, be sure to wash your hands and thoroughly clean any shared surfaces or utensil before preparing the rest of the meal.

What to expect if you end up in the ER

“Patients should anticipate slightly longer wait times, but still expect to be seen within 10 minutes of arrival. However, diagnostic testing and interpretation will still take time to process,” Friend said. While the ER may be more hectic than usual during the holidays, it also will be staffed to handle the higher volume of patients, decreasing wait times as much as possible, she said.

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