The 12 dangers of Christmas for families
Posted December 4, 2016
Updated December 5, 2016
Your house may be child-proofed, but has it been child-proofed for Christmas?
Glitter, snow globes and button batteries are among the seasonal hazards that threaten young children during the holidays, in addition to year-round hazards such as exposed electrical outlets and the like.
Here are the 12 dangers of Christmas that every parent — and grandparent — should watch out for to keep the season merry and bright.
Lithium batteries: Despite child-resistant packaging and pediatricians' warnings, hundreds of young children are ingesting button batteries each year with devastating results. These are the flat, circular batteries, about the size of a penny, that power many kinds of flameless candles and light up Christmas ornaments. They're also found in musical cards.
Last year, more than 3,100 people swallowed button batteries; more than 1,900 were children.
"These are tragic disastrous cases that are so difficult to treat," said Dr. Toby Litovitz, executive and medical director of the National Capital Poison Center, which runs a hotline specifically for button-battery ingestion, (202) 625-3333.
“The trickiest part is that batteries stuck in the esophagus must be removed within just two hours to prevent terrible injuries. That’s especially challenging when no one saw the child swallow a battery," Litovitz said in a statement.
When batteries lodge in the esophagus, they cause a chemical reaction that perforates the food pipe; affected children may have to be intubated to breathe and eat for years, and their vocal chords may become paralyzed. In extreme cases, the injury can extend to the aorta, and the child can die.
The batteries are dangerous whether they're new or used. If parents must use them, the Poison Center suggests that they secure the battery compartment with tape. And if you suspect your child has swallowed one, get the child to the emergency room right away.
All that glitters is not safe, at least not when it's airborne. That's the takeaway from an article in Women's Health magazine earlier this year about a woman who lost her eye after a particle of crafting glitter pierced her cornea and caused an infection that wouldn't heal. While eye doctors stressed that the severity of the injury was unusual, it's not uncommon for floating glitter to land in the eye and cause irritation or mild injury.
Moreover, glitter is so difficult to control that it's become weaponized. A website called "Ship Your Enemies Glitter" sold for $85,000, and conservative politicians including Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have been "glitter-bombed" by people who disagreed with their positions. Glitter can irritate, scratch or cut the cornea of the eye; if inhaled, it can cause an infection, The Hill reported. Best to keep young children away.
A cluster of mistletoe is an invitation for adults to kiss — and a temptation for children who might scoop up the pearly white berries that fall on the floor and put them in their mouth. In truth, mistletoe berries are not deadly, but the plant can cause stomach upset if enough is ingested, according to the National Capital Poison Center. In two studies of mistletoe ingestion reported to poison hotlines, most people had no distress. But three of 11 people who swallowed mistletoe leaves had stomach problems. So if you hang mistletoe as part of your holiday decorating, consider wrapping it in some sort of netting to keep pieces from falling on the floor.
Like mistletoe, poinsettias are commonly thought to be lethal to children. Don't serve them at dinner, but if a child decides to sample a poinsettia leaf, don't panic. Like any inedible plant, however, eat enough and you may experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. And touching it can give some people a rash, the Poison Center says. So in households with young children, keep poinsettias out of reach, and well-watered so their leaves don't drop on the floor.
You can buy or make Christmas-tree preservative to add to the water in the tree stand — but don't. Plain water works just fine, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, and some commercially produced preservatives contain things you don't want your children or pets to drink, including fungicide and fertilizer.
Children are fascinated by snow globes, but if they drop one and the snow globe breaks, there's not only broken glass, but the fluid to worry about — it can contain anti-freeze that can sicken children and pets, according to the Northern New England Poison Center. Keep them packed away until children are older.
When most people think of the dangers of strands of Christmas lights, they think about the risk of strangulation or fire. But many wires are coated in lead, the "probable carcinogen" that poisoned the water in Flint, Michigan. You can get lead on your hands while hanging lights, but, according to the American Cancer Society, "The bigger hazard is likely to be for toddlers and babies who put wires or cables in their mouths." So even unplugged, they're hazardous.
California requires that Christmas lights carry a warning label; the rest of us just need to remember the danger, and wash our hands after hanging lights, and remember to never prepare food or feed children in the middle of decorating with lights.
Cardiac events spike around Christmas, which is why there's a term for yuletide heart attacks: holiday heart syndrome. Excessive consumption of alcohol and marijuana can trigger atrial fibrillation and other heart-rhythm disorders that can lead to stroke, congestive heart failure or heart attack. That's one reason that heart attacks peak during the holiday season. (This is true even in warm climates, so don't blame the cold.)
There's also bad news about alcohol used in holiday recipes: Contrary to popular belief, the alcohol doesn't all burn off during baking, so think twice before giving a slice of whiskey-laced fruitcake to a 6-year-old.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the amount of alcohol that remains in food depends on the method of cooking and how long it is cooked or baked. A cookie that contains rum will retain 40 percent of the alcohol, Business Insider reported. The amount drops to 5 percent in a cake baked for 2½ hours.
The spices and extracts that make Christmas smell so wonderful can make small children sick. As little as 2 tablespoons of nutmeg can cause sensations similar to a drug high, as well as nausea, dizziness and sluggish brain function, according to a report in The New York Times. And the danger is not limited to young children who might sample some on the kitchen counter, but teenagers who deliberately ingest it.
A teaspoon of cinnamon can also make people ill, and more than that can be deadly; a 4-year-old in Kentucky died in 2015 after he ate some that was on a counter. The cinnamon got into the child's lungs and caused him to asphyxiate.
Then there's vanilla.
"Vanilla contains ethanol, the same type of alcohol found in beer, wine and hard liquor — and other types of flavoring extracts, perfume, cologne, aftershave, and mouthwash, too," the National Capital Poison Center says on its website.
So, keep all baking supplies well out of reach.
After a meal, most families put leftovers away right away. But at holiday parties, food can sit out for hours — and children can be helping themselves when grownups aren't looking, putting them at risk for bacterial infections, according to Children's National Health System.
Even worse: morsels of food left out overnight, when parents decide to save clean-up for the morning. An early rising toddler can sample spoiled food and alcohol left in dirty glasses while her parents are asleep the next morning, so no matter how tired you are, deal with the leftovers and scraps before you go to bed — and rinse out those glasses.
Experienced moms know not to leave a handbag in reach of an inquisitive toddler. But visitors without children may not, and in the clamor of entertaining, parents may not notice a child rifling through a visitor's purse, backpack or luggage.
"It only takes a second for a small child to get into something that's new and exciting while the adults are busy talking," Bridget Clementi of Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, in Milwaukee, said in Parents magazine.
Potential dangers include medications, coins, hard candy, pen caps, safety pins, small scissors and matches. When entertaining, offer guests a place to stow their personal items out of children's sight and reach. And make sure overnight guests stow luggage in a safe place, as well.
More than 200 Americans are injured every day during the holiday season while decorating their homes, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Many of them are hurt from falling off ladders.
But children are more threatened by a falling Christmas tree; they can be trapped under one, or cut by broken ornaments; they can eat pine needles or a fallen ornament hanger. With very young children, parents might consider a table-top tree, encircling the tree with baby gates, or wiring it to a wall.
Above all, keep the tree watered. This will reduce the number of needles on the floor and, most importantly, reduce the risk of fire, which grows exponentially as your tree dries out. If you need motivation to refill the water every day, watch the videos that the U.S. Fire Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have made, showing how quickly a dry tree can go up in flames.