Avoiding avoidable ER visits during the holidays

GBMC's Dr. Bill Zirkin offers some tips for staying out of a hospital emergency room this holiday season.


The holiday season is a time of joy and family.  It is also a time of high Emergency Room (ER) volumes and longer than average ER waits.  But some ER visits are avoidable with some planning and more careful behaviors.  Here are some common reasons for holiday-related ER visits and some common-sense ways to avoid spending your precious family time getting emergency medical attention.

  1. Cold/flu:  Nothing leads to upper respiratory illness, flu and other viral illnesses like spending time with children.  Our loving, adorable children also are weapons of mass disease spreading.  Avoid getting the flu by getting your yearly flu shot in advance of the holidays.  If your kids (or your in-laws) have a cold or another viral illness, remind them to cover their mouths when they cough and most important, wash your hands frequently, especially prior to eating.  If you do catch a cold, keep yourself hydrated but there is no need to come to the ER.  If you get the flu, take Tylenol or ibuprofen for the fever if you are allowed and come to the ER only for severe symptoms such as dehydration or shortness of breath.
  2. Food safety: Every year, thousands of Americans come to the ER during the holidays for food-borne illness causing symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea.  To avoid this, make sure that food is prepared well and if stored for future use, is well-refrigerated.  Remember that a crowded refrigerator may not keep foods as cold as they are supposed to.
  3. Overeating:  Eating to excess is common during the holidays, but in addition to being tough on your waistline, it can also be dangerous.  For people with chronic diseases such as diabetes or congestive heart failure, overeating can be life-threatening. Eat and be merry, but take precautions not to overdo it.
  4. Alcohol:  Alcohol consumption with friends and family over the holidays can be an enjoyable way to celebrate, however overconsumption, especially in the setting of driving, can be deadly.  If you are going to drink alcohol, drink in moderation.  Obviously, don’t let your friends or your relatives drive a car if you have any suspicion that they may be impaired.  Nothing ruins a holiday like a visit to the local trauma center.
  5. Falls from ladders:  Every year, we see patients who fall from ladders while hanging ornaments.  Be careful and secure your ladder.  If you aren’t able to go up a ladder, let someone else do it. Breaking a hip is a bad way to spend Christmas.
  6. Tree safety and plants: Again, every year we see tree-related injuries.  Ornaments should ideally be non-breakable, particularly if you have children.  They are not to be eaten either.  Also, trees can be quite dangerous if they fall on you or a child.  Make sure they are secured.  Some holiday plants are dangerous as well.  Poinsettias won’t kill you but can cause a very painful poison-ivy like rash.  Holly ingestion can cause a lot of gastrointestinal distress, as can eating mistletoe. 
  7. Chronic medication non-compliance:  Probably more common than injuries during the holidays are patients coming to the ER because they aren’t taking their chronic medications, particularly for blood pressure and diabetes.  Holiday season does not mean taking a break from medications which keep you healthy.  Make sure you are taking your medications and if someone is visiting who forgot to bring their medications, try to get them filled locally before they end up sick and in the hospital.


In conclusion, using some common sense and bit of restraint, you can enjoy the holiday season to the fullest and avoid the unnecessary ER visit.

Bill Zirkin, M.D. is Clinical Director of Emergency Medicine at Greater Baltimore Medical Center

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