The 16 Biggest Health Risks You Face on Christmas
Watch out for these illnesses, injuries, and mental health issues this Christmas.
Ah, the holidays—a festive time filled with celebrations, family and friends, and… hidden health risks. The most wonderful time of the year also comes with illnesses, injuries, and mental health challenges. Fortunately, knowing what to look out for during the Christmas season can help, so we spoke with several experts to find out about the biggest health risks we face every Christmas.
Christmas lights are a lovely addition to your holiday decorations. But should people really be up on ladders in the winter hanging lights in hard-to-reach places? Probably not. According to Barbara Bergin, MD, an orthopedic surgeon in Austin, Texas, it's likely that tens of thousands of people sustain injuries every year while doing this task, though many go unreported.
"The people who end up in the E.R. have, in many cases, sustained catastrophic injuries: fractured femurs, backs, necks, and head injuries. Many die," she says. To avoid these types of accidents, she urges people to practice ladder safety, which includes not resting ladders on unstable surfaces, wearing sturdy shoes, and not drinking alcohol before hanging lights. Bergin suggests hiring a professional to handle this aspect of your decorations.
And it's not just the lights that are problematic: Many people end up in the E.R. because of Christmas tree-related injuries. A 2019 study published in Advances in Integrative Medicine found that nearly 23,000 people were estimated to have been injured by Christmas trees or stands.
Christmas Tree Syndrome
Christmas trees pose more dangers than you realized! If you've had itchy, watery eyes, a runny nose, and fatigue around the holidays, and have a live tree in your home, you may be dealing with a mold allergy known as Christmas Tree Syndrome. A 2011 study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found that 53 different kinds of mold were present on 28 samples of Christmas trees—70 percent of which were potentially harmful, and could trigger allergic reactions like sneezing, wheezing, and coughing. If someone in your household gets sick around the tree, it might be time to go artificial.
Yes, Christmas lights are pretty and festive, but they can also give you quite the shock—literally. This typically happens when putting up or taking down Christmas decorations. Plugging in one faulty string could result in a shock, or serious burns on the skin. For example, in 2016 a Boston man sustained burns on his feet after being hit by 20,000 volts of electricity while putting up Christmas lights.
Colds and other contagious illnesses
Part of the Christmas season involves being surrounded by family and friends, as well as their children. Plus there's all that hugging and kissing and getting close to people you may only see once a year. Basically, it's a germ bonanza.
"The common cold and flu is spread by direct contact with the virus which is spread by others that are infected," says Lisa Ballehr, DO, a radiologist and functional medicine doctor. "Avoid touching your face without first washing your hands."
Holiday parties frequently have some sort of buffet where guests can help themselves to a variety of festive treats. There may also be a sit-down meal on top of that. You might even have multiple parties to attend in the same night. In other words: food galore.
"Overindulgence of traditional food can cause an increased level of obesity that can lead to detrimental effects like a cardiovascular event, acute stroke, and a long list of health conditions," says Sashini Seeni, MD, a general practitioner at DoctorOnCall. In the short term, overeating can also mean a nasty case of indigestion. To avoid this, Seeni recommends eating and drinking in moderation.
Seasonal affective disorder
Seasonal affective disorder, also called SAD, is a type of depression that occurs when seasons change. It is sometimes referred to as "winter depression" because the symptoms usually appear during late fall or early winter, according to Geny Zapata, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Adventist Health White Memorial. In other words, it kicks in just in time for Christmas.
"We say it's 'seasonal' because the usual patterns of changes in mood tend to occur around the same time each year," she explains. "Some of the possible causes for seasonal affective disorder can include changes in melatonin levels or a decrease in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can affect mood, sometimes due to reduced sunlight." The holidays can already be a tough time for some people, and those with SAD face additional mental health challenges.
It's not just seasonal affective disorder: The holiday blues are real. "Many people tend to experience more depression and anxiety with the start of Thanksgiving extending into Christmas and New Year's," explains Soma Mandal, MD, an internist and women's health specialist at the Summit Medical Group of New Jersey. "Factors that may play out are single status, loss of a loved one, and living far away from one's family."
The stigma surrounding mental illness can make anxiety issues, depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses around the holidays even worse, says Frank Chen, MD, a psychiatrist in Houston, Texas. "Some stigmas to note include an assumption of weakness and that those diagnosed with mental illness are incapable of managing life's stressors. These stigmas often impact an individual's interest, willingness and ability to access support." Chen also points out that many attempt to self-medicate using alcohol or other substances during the holiday season, because "it's often more acceptable to go to a liquor store than a mental health provider."
There's a lot to hate about holiday travel, but traveler's diarrhea has to be pretty high on the list. "During holidays like Christmas, it's quite easy to overeat, take in something contaminated, or eat foods that you're intolerant to. This can lead to traveler's diarrhea—the passage of frequent loose stool," explains Omiete Charles-Davies, MD, a physician who also runs the travel blog Travel Efficiency.
And as annoying as it can be—especially when you're staying at another person's house and are facing an away-toilet situation—it's fairly easy to treat. Charles-Davies recommends taking an oral rehydration solution that can be bought in a powdered form. If diarrhea continues, you should see a doctor.
Increased heart attack risk
Sure, it may be the festive season, but according to Mandal, the holidays are also a time for increased heart attacks. In fact, an observational study published in 2018 in the British Journal of Medicine looked at data from more than 280,000 people in Sweden from 1998 to 2013, and found that a higher incidence of heart attacks happened around the holiday season.
Not only that, but according to a 2004 study published in the journal Circulation, people tend to delay treatment during the holidays. Mandal says that known risk factors for a heart attack include diabetes, hypertension, smoking, high cholesterol, and age. She also notes that overindulgence in high salt and high fat foods and stress probably also play a major role in cardiovascular problems during the holidays.
Even if you haven't been diagnosed with clinical anxiety, the holiday season has a way of making people especially anxious. Between the forced merriment, seeing friends and family members you may otherwise avoid, the high cost of travel and gift-buying, and the pressure to make everything look perfect, Christmas is a stress minefield.
"Stress is a natural phenomenon—a certain degree of anxiety propels us to stay alive and motivates action," Chen explains. "But the holidays can bring with them certain pressures that might be overwhelming and exhausting, like proving success or fulfillment to family members, getting just the right gifts, decorating, and overscheduling social engagements. These are examples of normal, even expected stressors behind what we all hope is a joyous Christmas each year."
Festivities mean food, and food can sometimes make you sick. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issues yearly information on how to avoid getting food poisoning at your holiday gathering.
The main culprit during holiday parties is food that sits out for too long without being refrigerated. According to the CDC, bacteria can grow quickly between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit—otherwise known as "the danger zone." To avoid getting people sick, keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Then, either refrigerate or freeze any perishable food within two hours of serving.
When you think about it, Christmas preparations involve several tasks that may result in people cutting themselves. These can include chopping food while cooking, wrapping or opening presents (paper cuts are no joke!), and cuts from a broken ornament. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports that cuts were the most common holiday injuries in 2016, accounting for 18 percent of doctor and emergency room visits. Be careful with that knife!
Smoke inhalation and burns
Between flammable Christmas trees, burning candles, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire, there are plenty of opportunities for smoke inhalation and burns during the holiday season. A dry tree can easily catch on fire, which means if you have a real one, you need to check its water level daily. The CPSC reports that during the months of November and December between 2012 and 2014, Christmas trees accounted for 100 fires, 10 deaths, and 20 injuries treated at the emergency room.
With all of the activities and excitement of Christmas, don't forget that there are plenty of opportunities for people to choke. For children, choking risks include small parts of toys they receive as gifts, holiday decorations, and foods—especially candy.
To avoid toy-related choking hazards, keep this rule from Simple CPR in mind: "If it is small enough to fit in an infant or toddler's mouth, then it is deemed too small to permit them to have." Examples of these small objects include items found in dollhouses or miniature figurines, which can block a child's airway. The biggest choking risk for adults is food, particularly hotdogs, popcorn, peanuts, hard candy, fruits, vegetables, meats, and cheese, according to Simple CPR.
Falling on ice
In some parts of the country, Christmas means cold weather with frigid temperatures, snow, and ice. Snow is annoying, but ice can be downright dangerous if you slip on it. While anyone can fall on the ice, it's especially dangerous for older people, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is because they are at greater risk of a fall, and are more likely to sustain serious injuries, like bone fractures, compared to younger people.
"Falls in the elderly can be life-threatening, as their brains are not as responsive to healing, and they can develop other complications once hospitalized for a brain injury," Jeremy L. Fogelson, MD, a neurosurgeon at Mayo Clinic said in a statement. So keep an eye out for everyone this winter—especially the more mature members of your family.
For many people, the holidays wouldn't be complete without a glass of eggnog… or several. While it's perfectly fine to enjoy adult beverages responsibly, not everyone does. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), potential problems with binge drinking include alcohol poisoning, drunk driving, getting into fights, and a range of other poor decisions.
The NIAAA also notes that though it may seem like the effects of alcohol have worn off, they likely last a lot longer than you think. "The truth is that alcohol continues to affect the brain and body long after the last drink has been finished," NIAAA reports. "Even after someone stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream, resulting in impaired judgment and coordination for hours." Don't use the holidays as an excuse to overindulge.