Nothing says “Happy Holidays” like a trip to the ER. Emergency physicians have a jaded view of the holidays. The hanging of Christmas lights and the excitement of opening presents, along with gargantuan meals and a few too many toasts, almost guarantee a busier-than-average time of year.

Common holiday injuries—and how to avoid them…

Revenge of the vegetables

Few people get hurt when they’re carving a turkey or a holiday ham. It’s the carrots that are out to get you.

Emergency physicians get a lot of practice stitching kitchen cuts. They almost always happen when people are cutting vegetables.

Reason: Vegetables are harder than you might think—it’s easy for a knife (especially one that isn’t properly sharpened) to skitter off the vegetable and onto the flesh of your nondominant hand. Also, vegetables often are prepared at the last minute. You’re in a hurry—bad things happen when you’re rushed and holding a knife.

Self-defense: Try to finish all of the cooking and food preparation before your guests arrive. You will be more likely to take your time. You may want to wear thin food-preparation gloves (available in many grocery stores or online) to help prevent food from slipping out of your hands.

Wrap rage

Impenetrable plastic containers now are used to encase everything from electronic toys to wrench sets. They probably aren’t designed to drive you insane, but getting them open requires patience, persistence and sometimes a sharp blade.

I see these injuries every year. People (usually visitors to a home who pick up the first sharp thing they can find) slice themselves badly when they tackle plastic containers using utility blades or butcher knives. I actually knew someone who used an electric carving knife to open a DVD case. He nearly lost a fingertip.

Self-defense: Slow down, and calm down. Don’t let the kids rush you. Take a moment to read the back of the package. You may find instructions on how to pry that particular plastic container apart.

If you need to cut, use scissors or a pair of heavy-duty shears. Wear gloves. The sharp edges of the plastic will cut you just as easily—and as deeply—as a knife.

Bird burns

You might get a minor burn when you’re roasting a turkey and accidentally touch the oven rack or roasting pan—usually not that big a deal. You can really get hurt when using a turkey fryer. These devices use about five gallons of oil heated to 350°F or more. Hot oil can splash, particularly when you are lowering or raising the bird. If you’re cooking on the back porch, a splash of rain or snow can cause the oil to spatter. One drop of hot oil can cause a first- or second-degree burn.

Self-defense: Stay at least 10 feet away from the fryer when it’s in use. Wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, heavy-duty work gloves and shoes when raising or lowering the bird. Make sure that moisture can’t get into the fryer, including drips from overhead icicles or snow.

Ladders and Lights

Electricity is the least of your worries (see the important exception below) when you festoon your house and trees with twinkly lights. Most light strands carry the UL/ETL labels, which indicate that they meet safety standards.

The real danger is the ladder—lots of people get hurt using ladders during the holiday season. One of my friends, a cardiologist, spent months in rehab after he fell off a ladder while stringing outdoor lights.

Self-defense: Don’t wait until the last minute to hang lights, particularly if there’s a chance that you will be dealing with snow and ice. Put up lights when the weather’s good…wear slip-resistant shoes…and make sure that the ladder is positioned properly.

Untangle the strands before you get on the ladder. You don’t want to struggle with cold fingers and tangled lights when you’re precariously balanced six feet or more off the ground.

Important: Use a fiberglass or wood ladder if you’re working anywhere close to power lines. A metal ladder that touches a power line could deliver an electrical jolt that sends you flying.

A Crackling Fire

A cheery Christmas blaze in the fireplace emits more than just fire and smoke. There’s also carbon monoxide, a dangerous gas that needs to be properly vented.

What happens: People who use the fireplace only during the holidays often forget to clean the chimney. Or they assume that it doesn’t need cleaning because they use it so rarely. But even small amounts of chimney buildup can allow carbon monoxide gas to enter the house.

Unlike natural gas, carbon monoxide is completely odorless. Breathing even small amounts can cause headaches, nausea, chest pain and even death. Carbon monoxide is responsible for more than 20,000 ER visits and more than 400 deaths annually.

Self-defense: Every home should have a carbon monoxide detector on each floor. You can buy one for as little as $20. Read the package instructions for proper placement. If you use a fireplace or wood stove, have a professional clean it regularly and check the chimney and flue for blockages and loose connections. Never close your damper with hot ashes in the fireplace.

Important: If you develop any of the above symptoms and even suspect that it could be due to carbon monoxide, get everyone (sick or not) outdoors immediately. Call 911 or go to the ER. You’ll probably be given pure oxygen to breathe. You might need hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which replaces carbon monoxide in the blood with oxygen.

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