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8 Surprising Ways People Get Hurt During the Holidays

Hazards include falling from ladders, tripping on toys and even getting hit by flying champagne corks

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We may chuckle at scenes of Clark Griswold sliding off his roof in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation each year, but holiday injuries are no joke. Although the season is supposed to be full of joy, celebration and time spent with loved ones, with all the hustle and bustle, things are bound to occasionally go awry.

You accidentally staple your finger with the staple gun when hanging Christmas decorations. A heavy box of ornaments falls off a shelf and lands on your head. Or — heaven forbid — you fall from a ladder while hanging lights along your roofline.

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All of those are real holiday-related injuries documented by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which collects data on emergency room visits.

Many holiday-related injuries happen when someone is putting up or taking down decorations, the database shows. In addition to falling off ladders (a lot!), people tend to cut themselves when they handle or step on broken ornaments (another big one) and get poked in the eye by errant pine needles.

One poor fellow in 2021 accidentally ingested a piece of a broken ornament that had fallen into his soup.

Strains and sprains from carrying heavy objects are common, as are complaints of chest pain and other possible symptoms of a heart attack.

“Certainly, we see accidents and illnesses at all times of year, but there are some holiday-specific types of injuries that happen every year in December,” says Thomas Waters, an emergency medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic. Nearly a third (30 percent) of Americans who celebrate winter holidays say they have been injured while participating in holiday-related activities, according to a 2022 ValuePenguin survey.

Another problem during the holidays is that people tend to put off getting medical attention, because they don’t want to disrupt the festivities or miss out on visiting with family, says Michael D. Levine, associate professor of emergency medicine at UCLA. Unfortunately, delays often lead to worse outcomes, Levine says. Here are eight common holiday-related injuries and accidents, along with real-life examples from the CPSC database and smart advice on how to stay safe.

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1. Tripping on toys, cords, wrapping paper or other hazards

Example: A 79-year-old tripped over the cord to a string of Christmas lights and fell.

Adults age 65 and older are already at higher risk of falls, with about 1 in 4 falling each year. And during the holiday season, they have to navigate more obstacles than ever.

People stumble over wrapping paper, decorations, light cords and toys scattered across the floor, says Janice Williams, director of the Injury Prevention Center at Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Family pets are another hazard. “They tend to dart around in excitement and have been a cause of many older relatives’ falls during the season,” Williams says.

Safety tips: Wear shoes with traction, limit your alcohol intake, and watch your step as you walk. Be especially careful when you’re carrying something that makes it hard to see where you’re going, such as a box of Christmas decorations.

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2. Falling from a ladder, step stool or roof while decorating

Example: A 60-year-old man fell off his roof while trying to hang Christmas lights.

On average, about 160 people suffer decorating-related injuries each day during the holiday season, with almost half of the incidents involving falls, according to the CPSC. During the 2022 holiday season, about 14,800 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries from holiday decorating. More than 40 percent of the injuries were from falling. “People climb up ladders to put up lights or to put up decorations, and they climb higher than they should,” Levine says. “If you’re not steady on your feet at baseline, you don’t belong on a ladder at all.”

Falls from great heights can cause injuries such as broken bones, internal bleeding (especially if you’re on a blood thinner) or spinal damage.

Safety tips: If you use a ladder, make sure it’s on level and firm ground, have a helper hold the ladder, don’t lean too far to either side and avoid stepping on the top three rungs. If you want lights on the roof, consider delegating that task to a younger family member or a professional.

3. Heart attack

Example: A 75-year-old man developed chest pain while getting Christmas decorations from his attic.

A study published in the journal Circulation showed that more cardiac deaths occur on Christmas (Dec. 25) than on any other day of the year. The next most deadly days are Dec. 26 and then Jan. 1.

Researchers aren’t sure why deadly heart attacks increase during the last week of the year, but they suspect it is because the holidays are a stressful time, when many people eat heavy meals, get out of their routines or inadvertently skip their medications.

People may also exert themselves more than usual, whether they’re putting up decorations, preparing to host a gathering or shoveling snow.

“During the holidays, people tend to overdo it. They’re eating and drinking more than normal. They may have more activity than normal,” Waters says. “All of that can put more stress on your heart and circulatory system.”

Safety tips: Celebrate in moderation, watch your salt intake and make time to care for yourself during this busy time of year. Also, know the symptoms of a heart attack, and don’t hesitate to call 911 if you or a family member experiences any of them.


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4. Getting cut while opening a gift, trimming a tree or slicing a roast/turkey/ham

Example: A 34-year-old accidentally cut a thumb with a knife while opening a Christmas present.

With so many online gifts arriving in cardboard boxes, a box cutter, utility knife or pair of scissors can come in handy. Such tools can also help you trim your tree, slice the Christmas rib roast or pry open the plastic clamshells that still encase some items. But just one slip can cause serious injury to your hand.

In the ValuePenguin survey, cuts from opening or wrapping gifts were the most commonly reported injury, accounting for 13 percent of holiday-related injuries.

Older adults should be especially careful because their motor skills may not be as strong as they once were, Williams says. Their skin is also thinner and more delicate.

Safety tips: Use a sharp blade because it will be easier to control. Take your time, keep your other hand away from the area where you are cutting, and cut with the blade facing away from your body.

spinner image close up of champagne and cork exploding from bottle
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5. Getting hit by a champagne cork

Example: A 42-year-old opening a champagne bottle was struck in the eye when the cork popped off.

A flying champagne cork travels at up to 50 mph as it leaves the bottle — fast enough to shatter glass, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

If it hits someone in the eye, it can cause bleeding, corneal abrasion and serious eye injury, Waters says. “People push [the cork] off with their thumb and then it goes flying across the room,” he says. “That’s dangerous. It becomes a projectile.”

Safety tips: To open a bottle of champagne safely, point the bottle away from others. Then place a napkin or towel over the top, and firmly hold the cork while gently twisting the base of the bottle.

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6. Christmas tree, candle or cooking fires

Example: When a candle set an artificial Christmas tree on fire, a man tried to put it out with his feet, burning his feet and lower legs.

Although Christmas tree fires are rare, when they happen, they tend to be serious, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Almost a third of home Christmas tree fires are caused by electrical problems. Another 20 percent happen because a heat source was placed too close to the tree.

The number of fires caused by candles is also high at this time of year, with 22 percent of all candle fires happening in December or January. And cooking fires happen more often on holidays, because cooks tend to get distracted when their kitchen is full of people. Food left on the stove is the biggest cause of kitchen fires.

Safety tips: If you have a real tree, water it every day because dry needles and wood catch fire more easily. Inspect light strands for worn or frayed cords before you place them on your tree, and make sure you’re not overloading electrical outlets. As for candles, keep them in sight and away from flammable items. When you leave your home, blow out candles and turn off your holiday lights. Also, make sure your smoke detectors are working.

7. Food poisoning

Bacteria multiply when food sits out for too long at holiday gatherings, causing food poisoning in those who eat it.

You can also get sick from eating uncooked cookie dough that contains contaminated flour or eggs, or consuming holiday foods such as eggnog or hollandaise sauce made with raw eggs that aren’t pasteurized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Older adults are at higher risk of food poisoning because their immune systems and organs don’t recognize and get rid of harmful germs as well as they once did, the CDC says. Nearly half of people age 65 and older who get sick from salmonella, campylobacter, listeria or E. coli are hospitalized.

Safety tips: Cook food thoroughly (use a food thermometer), and refrigerate perishable foods within two hours. Use pasteurized eggs for foods containing raw eggs. For more food safety tips, check out these ways to safely store and use holiday leftovers.

8. Kids, adults or pets ingesting things they shouldn’t

Example: A woman reported that she woke up to find a 4-year-old on the kitchen counter eating marijuana cookies that she had hidden in a Christmas box behind other items.

Levine says he has seen several cases where grandparents were the ones who accidentally ate marijuana brownies or gummies that belonged to their children or grandchildren. “They come in dizzy, thinking they are having a stroke,” he says. “If you are staying at someone else’s house, make sure you know what you’re eating.” 

Tragically, toys can be deadly for children. A report from the CPSC found there were 11 deaths and an estimated 145,500 injuries treated at emergency departments in 2022 associated with toys for children 12 years and younger. Most of the deaths from toys are from choking on small or sharp toy parts, balls, buttons, batteries, balloons or magnets.

The CPSC issued a warning this week against a high-powered magnetic ball toy set because children are at risk of injury or death if they swallow the magnets. The commission also warned parents and caregivers not to give water beads to small children, because they can cause injuries and death.

The most dangerous item a child can ingest is adult medication, and it happens a lot, Levine says. Medications are tempting for children because they are small, round and colorful — just like candy.

“Grandparents come stay in their grandkids’ house, and they’re used to being by themselves, so they leave their medicines out on the counter or nightstand, whatever they normally do. Then we see kids get into those pills,” Levine says.

Pets are at risk around the holidays as well. The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center has a full list of hazardous foods, including avocados, citrus and nuts. Other holiday hazards for fur babies: Wires can deliver electric shocks, mistletoe can cause heart and gastro problems if ingested, and if your pets like Christmas tree water, they could come down with nausea or diarrhea. Even sparkly tinsel can be dangerous to pets, causing severe vomiting and digestive track obstruction.

Safety tips: Put away toys with button batteries, magnets and small parts. Store medications in childproof containers out of the reach of children. If you think a child may have ingested something dangerous, call poison control at 800-222-1222. For pets, be aware which foods are toxic and don’t leave them within reach. Watch the wires and stick to lights and ornaments on the tree, the poison control center advises.

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