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10 Holiday Safety Mistakes You Probably Don’t Realize You’re Making

The most wonderful time of the year comes with its share of potential dangers. Here's how to reduce the risk of accident and injury during the festive season.

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Christmas light displayPhoto: Shutterstock

You hang a few “indoor” lights outdoors

Many holiday lights manufactured today are intended for both indoor and outdoor use, but you may come across some that are location specific. Indoor lights aren’t as resistant to moisture, which may cause electrical shorts and damage in wet weather.

Safety tips: Many products tested for safety in North America are labelled with a UL tag (for Underwriters’ Laboratories, a certification company that inspects such products). Indoor lights have a tag marked with a green UL. Outdoor lights are marked with a red UL.

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PoinsettiasPhoto: Shutterstock

You keep poinsettias in reach of your kids and pets

This one is actually not as risky as you might think. Despite its “poisonous” reputation, the plant is only mildly toxic. A 50-pound child would need to eat more than 500 poinsettia leaves to reach potentially toxic levels, and no deaths have been documented from consumption. A child may get queasy or throw up after eating, say, five poinsettia leaves—but not much more will happen. (Plus, the leaves taste unpleasant, so it’s unlikely many would be consumed.) The plants may cause drooling, vomiting, or diarrhea in cats and dogs, but medical treatment is rarely necessary unless symptoms are severe.

Safety tips: To be safe, keep poinsettias out of the reach of pets and young children, but there’s no need to banish your favourite holiday plant.

Tired of poinsettias? Check out these Christmas flower alternatives.

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Man hanging Christmas lights during winter from a ladderPhoto: mooremedia/Shutterstock

You use the top rung of a ladder to hang Christmas lights

“Whoever draws the Christmas shift usually has a story to tell,” says Dr. Louis Francescutti, an emergency-room physician in Edmonton at Alberta’s Royal Alexandra Hospital, and a professor and injury researcher at the University of Alberta. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, ladder injuries are so common that between 2015 and 2016, they sent more than 15,000 Canadians to hospital.

Safety tips: If you’re using a ladder outdoors, do so during daylight hours, and clear away snow or ice before setting it down. Follow the advice outlined by the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association’s safe-practice guide: Never stand on a rung higher than fourth from the top, and don’t climb up or down while carrying anything. Instead, place lights or other items in a container and raise and lower them by rope while maintaining three-point contact with the ladder: one hand and two feet, or two hands and one foot. Make sure you have a spotter, too.

Find out the best time to buy a Christmas tree in Canada.

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Businessman has sudden symptoms of a heart attack, angina, nausea, or illness like flu or ebola.Photo: Lisa F. Young/Shutterstock

You blame your heart pain on indigestion

The risk of heart attack spikes during the holiday season. Part of the problem is that some cardiac symptoms are similar to those of indigestion—another seasonal risk—and many people would rather blame their discomfort on gluttony than interrupt a party for a visit to emergency. “If you’ve lived your whole life without indigestion and all of a sudden you’re suffering from it, you need to think that it could be your heart,” warns Dr. Beth Abramson, a Toronto cardiologist and spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. (Learn more about the heart attack symptoms that are frequently misdiagnosed.)

And the weather doesn’t help either. Low temperatures, especially if coupled with snow shovelling, can be deadly. Cold conditions can slow blood flow to the heart by tightening blood vessels, while exercise increases the heart’s need for blood and oxygen. Therefore, you may be in a situation where the supply of blood to the heart is reduced during a time of increased need—a recipe for a heart attack. “When you’re shovelling and breathing in cold air—especially if you’re overweight and out of shape or have risk factors for heart disease—you’re putting yourself in jeopardy,” says Abramson. Another cardiac risk can be found in boozy beverages. “Holiday heart syndrome,” a fast, irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation, can be caused by drinking too much alcohol in a short time. (Read more on why winter is prime heart attack season.)

Safety tips: Even doctors can’t be sure, based on observation alone, when someone is having a heart attack. While pressure on the chest is the most common symptom, a heart attack doesn’t have to be of the dramatic Hollywood variety. “Sudden chest, neck, throat, jaw or arm discomfort, or shortness of breath or nausea that comes out of the blue needs to be taken seriously,” says Abramson. Family history of heart problems, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, and being overweight increase your risk. “There are quick and simple tests that can be done in an emergency room to confirm whether you’re having a heart attack,” says Abramson. When in doubt, play it safe by heading straight to the hospital.

Learn to spot the silent signs of a heart attack.

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Christmas candles and ornaments over dark background with lightsPhoto: asife/Shutterstock

You leave lit candles and stovetop items unattended

Christmas trees are, of course, a fire hazard, but the biggest cause of home fires, by far, is cooking, accounting for 20 percent of fires in 2007. Another culprit? Candles. Fire statistics collected in Alberta during the holiday season (Dec. 15 to 31) over a five-year period from 2005 to 2009 showed that candle fires doubled compared to the rest of the year.

Safety tips: Never leave stovetop items unattended, and don’t allow candles to burn in an empty room. When you do light candles, keep them far from the tree and other flammable items, such as wrapping paper. Make sure your holiday lights have been tested by either Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) or Intertek (ETL Semko)—the packaging will say so. Throw out any sets with cracked bulb sockets or damaged wires. Finally, make sure your Christmas tree is watered daily.

These facts about house fires could save your life.

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Woman depressed with Christmas gift clutterPhoto: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock

You take on more responsibilities than you can handle

Expectations can run high during the holiday season. There are events to attend, gifts to buy, food to prepare, decorations to put up, people to entertain—all of which requires waiting in lines, spending money and squeezing more into your schedule. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association showed that 38 percent of people experienced elevated stress during the holidays. It’s not just you!

Safety tips: Simplify. Stop accepting every invitation and trying to see everyone during the holidays. Otherwise, you’ll burn out. And don’t try to out-dazzle everyone with extravagant dinners, over-the-top decorating and expensive presents. The holiday season shouldn’t feel like a competition. Another useful insight? Start your shopping early. Keep a running list in your wallet or phone of the people for whom you plan to buy gifts. That way, you can take advantage of sales throughout the year and avoid the stress of overspending.

Here are the signs of stress you might be ignoring.

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Group Of Friends Enjoying Christmas Drinks In BarPhoto: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

You have more than two alcoholic drinks per day

You came, you saw, you drank. If you don’t usually overindulge in alcohol, your body is in for a shock: A painful hangover.

Safety tips: Holidays and alcohol seem to go hand in hand. Catherine Hardman, executive director of Choices for Change, an alcohol, drug, and gambling counselling centre based in Stratford, Ontario, offers this advice:

  • Alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic ones.
  • Forget the one-drink-per-hour guideline for preventing hangovers. Though it’s a good way to keep an eye on your holiday drinking, it’s not reliable since people metabolize differently. Hardman states that low-risk drinking guidelines state no more than two standard drinks on any day, and no more than nine per week for women and no more than 14 for men.
  • Agree to be the designated driver. “That gives you an out,” says Hardman, “and people also respect that.” Moreover, you’ll have a holiday to remember—for all the right reasons.

Try these 10 alternatives to booze the next time you need to unwind.

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Thanksgiving dinner, Thanksgiving turkey. Served table. Thanksgiving table served with turkey, decorated with bright autumn leaves. Roasted turkey, table settingPhoto: Subbotina Anna/Shutterstock

Your turkey is almost undercooked

According to Ben Chapman, who works with Ontario’s University of Guelph’s Food Safety Network, “Undercooked turkey is one of the top 10 foods that make people sick.” But it’s not just the turkey: Stuffing absorbs the juices inside the bird, so it has to be as thoroughly cooked as the meat. Eggnog is also notorious for making people sick if it’s left unrefrigerated for too long or made with raw eggs, which can contain salmonella bacteria. Edmonton’s Dr. Louis Francescutti is all too familiar with holiday food misery. “An entire family came in with food poisoning,” he says. “They all needed intravenous rehydration.” (Here’s how to tell the difference between food poisoning and a stomach bug.)

Safety tips: The Food Safety Network advises cooking an unstuffed turkey to 170 F (77 C) and a stuffed one to 180 F (82 C). Alternatively, cook the stuffing separately. Stuffed or not, always roast a turkey in a 325 F (160 C) oven. Never start cooking it in one place, then transport it to another and finish cooking there.

Find out 11 leftovers that can make you sick.

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unboxingPhoto: KPad/Shutterstock

You open packages and gifts recklessly

Every holiday season, Dr. Francescutti treats patients who need their hands or fingers stitched up after they’ve lost a vicious battle with clamshell packaging—the hard, molded plastic that is sealed around the toy, tool, or product you’re anxious to get at. “It’s mostly fathers I see who are trying to open packages for others—a little too quickly sometimes,” he says. Dads are also more likely to grab imprecise implements, such as penknives, to tackle the packaging, resulting in a nasty wound when the plastic bites back.

Safety tips: Dr. Francescutti recommends that an adult place the product on a countertop and carefully run a sharp utility knife around the packaging, with the sharp end pointing away from the person. To safely discard this plastic—with its razor-sharp edges—avoid tossing it into a bin or bag someone might try to compact by hand later. Instead, check if it can be recycled, then toss directly in the bin.

Do yourself a favour and follow these genius holiday tips.

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Dog sitting next to Christmas treePhoto: Shutterstock

You let the dog drink water from the tree stand

That tree stand is probably filled with water that’s far from fresh. Tree preservative, often made with fertilizer and fungicides, can cause vomiting or upset stomach in pets; bacteria can also multiply in the standing water.

Safety tips: Snugly wrap a tree skirt around the trunk to make the water harder for your pet to get to.

Now that you’ve got these holiday safety tips down, eliminate potentials dangers in every room with our healthy home checklist.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest