10 Hidden Holiday Dangers to Avoid This Season

Updated: Feb. 28, 2024

These simple bits of advice will help you celebrate the holidays without incident.

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Don’t let this be you

Margaret Keresteci should have known better. Thanks to her previous job collecting injury data at the Canadian Institute for Health Information, the Toronto resident was well aware of the many mishaps that occur during the holidays. Nevertheless, one winter night she was so anxious to get her exterior Christmas lights up that she hauled out a ladder, climbed to the top rung and then leaned too far to one side. The next thing Keresteci knew, she was lying on the ground with two broken wrists and a gash on her head. Her husband and kids weren’t at home, so, in terrible pain, she made her way to a nearby house, where she summoned help by banging on the door with her elbow. Keresteci suffered permanent damage to one wrist as a result of her fall. Her story is a kind of perfect storm of holiday hazards: Elaborate decorating, high stress, busy schedule. It’s no wonder there are typically more falls from ladders, more accidental fires, and more food-related illnesses just before and during the holiday season than at any other time of the year. The good news is that most of these incidents are preventable. Here is our guide to the season’s red flags—and how to avoid them.

Man hanging Christmas lights during winter from a ladder

Reaching for the top

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, says he treats traumas like Keresteci’s every year. “Whoever draws the Christmas shift usually has a story to tell,” he says. 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. Learn about more holiday decorating mistakes that could put you and your family in danger.

Businessman has sudden symptoms of a heart attack, angina, nausea, or illness like flu or ebola.
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Ticker trouble

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. And the weather doesn’t help either. Low temperatures, especially if coupled with snow shoveling, 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 shoveling 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.

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. Check out some more tips to help you have your healthiest holiday season ever.

Smoke alarm

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, the last year for which data is available. Another culprit? Candles. Fire statistics collected in Alberta during the holiday season (December 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.

Woman depressed with Christmas gift clutter
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Stress overload

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 accept- ing 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 some simple tips that can help you reduce your holiday stress.

Group Of Friends Enjoying Christmas Drinks In Bar
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Partier’s remorse

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 counseling center 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.
Thanksgiving dinner, Thanksgiving turkey. Served table. Thanksgiving table served with turkey, decorated with bright autumn leaves. Roasted turkey, table setting
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Dangerous dining

According to Ben Chapman, who works with Ontario’s University of Guelph’s Food Safety Network, “Undercooked turkey is one of the top ten 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.”

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. For more safe turkey cooking tips, call the Food Safety Network hotline at 1-866-593-7638. Find out the best ways to deal with awkward holiday etiquette scenarios.


Packaging woes

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.

Dog Jack Russell Terrier. holiday, Christmas

Letting the dog drink 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. Here are some more important tips for keeping your pets safe during the winter.

front door with holiday lights
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Hanging 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 the United States are labeled 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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Keeping 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: Keep poinsettias out of the reach of pets and young children, but there’s no need to banish your favorite holiday plant. Next, read about the holiday decorating mistakes you didn’t know you were making.