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A Survival Guide For A Safe Holiday Season


November 28, 2005  |  

University of California, San Diego Medical Center and the California Poison Control System offer these seasonal tips to help keep the season safe.

“The holidays are traditionally a time when family and friends get together to celebrate,” said Carlos Rojas, M.D., Associate Clinical Professor of Family Medicine, at University of California, San Diego, Medical Center.

Alcohol poisoning is common in children throughout the year, but increases during the holidays. This often occurs when children drink the leftover cocktails after parties, or when adults allow them to drink from their glasses, said Rojas.  Adults should make sure alcoholic drinks are cleaned up and out of reach during and after a party.

Also, colognes, perfumes and after-shave contain heavy concentrations of alcohol. Small children might ingest these products by mistake if they are attractively packaged. Children are very sensitive to alcohol, especially to its ability to lower blood sugar, said Rojas.

Toy-related injuries peak during the holidays. Parents should carefully review the toys on their child’s wish-list and consider the responsibility level of the child. Small toys which break easily may be swallowed by small children and pets and cause serious injuries. Potentially dangerous items such as darts, slingshots and BB guns can cause injury and loss of sight, especially during the excitement of holidays, said Rojas.

Additionally, small batteries -- used in watches, cameras and calculators -- can be quite dangerous if swallowed. They may cause burns or leak chemicals that cause poisoning.

Hidden Holiday Hazards

“Plants and products usually not seen or available during the first 10 months of the year account for many problems during the holiday season,” said Lee Cantrell, Pharm.D., interim director of the California Poison Control System, San Diego Division, at University of California, San Diego Medical Center. This may pose a problem for curious pets and young children especially.

“When visiting friends and relatives, especially those without small children, make sure their home is poison-proof,” said Cantrell.

For example, most people don’t know that all parts of mistletoe are toxic, and the berries may cause poisoning in children, explained Cantrell.

In addition to mistletoe the leaves, and especially the berries, of English holly are toxic. Ingestion of 20 or 30 berries can cause very serious poisoning.

Some seasonal nontoxic plants include pyracantha, eugenia and California holly. Poinsettias are essentially nontoxic, but can cause stomach upset if ingested, and the milky sap can cause some skin irritation. Also, Christmas cactus and pine cones are nontoxic.

Christmas tree needles such as pines, spruces and junipers may cause stomach upset if large amounts are ingested. Ingestion of small amounts may cause a localized irritation of the mouth.

Some Christmas decorations may be dangerous. Care should be taken to hang glass bulbs and light bulbs high on the tree to prevent accidents. Angel hair, or spun glass, is very irritating to the skin and eyes. Ornaments imported from other countries may be painted with a lead paint and could be toxic if ingested. Tinsel manufactured prior to 1972 also contains lead; however, the major problem with ingestion of large amounts of tinsel is obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract, said Cantrell.

Medicine, cosmetics and other small items from grandma’s purse or grandpa’s coat pocket can frequently be swallowed by small children. Make sure that visitors to your home store packages and purses out of a child’s reach, said Cantrell.

Food Tips

Southern California is known for having warm holiday weather, so even though summer is over, certain precautions should be taken to fight food poisoning.

At warm temperatures -- 60 degrees and over -- food poisoning bacteria can begin to multiply and cause illness. While food poisoning usually means uncomfortable intestinal flu-like symptoms, it can be serious -- in the young, the elderly, and people with other illnesses.

Keep everything that touches food clean. Wash hands before preparing food. Cook food thoroughly and if your holiday meal is left out and reaches room temperature, it could become a source of food poisoning. By observing the cold storage, sanitation and thorough cooking rules you can keep your food safe during the holidays.

If an ingestion of a questionable product occurs or you have questions about the potential toxicity of anything in your home, call the California Poison Control System, San Diego Division, at UCSD Medical Center, toll free at (800) 876-4766. The Poison Control System offers a 24-hour-a-day information service on the toxicology, clinical signs and symptoms, assessment and treatment of exposures to toxic substances.

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