Originally created 12/18/97

Keeping the season bright

Amid the sleighbells jingling and carol-singing, there is the occasional siren. Experts say you need to add a little care to your holiday cheer this season.

Accidental poisonings, hazardous toys, scaldings and traffic accidents could await the unwary this season. A few simple precautions and common sense could mean the difference between spending time around the tree or spending it in the emergency room.

Among the most obvious hazards are the festive plants that show up around Christmas, said Brooks Metts, director of the Palmetto Poison Control Center at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Decking the hall with boughs of holly may look nice, but it's actually poisonous, Dr. Metts said.

"Holly is a stomach irritant," Dr. Metts said. "It can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea."

The same goes for mistletoe - kissing under it is fine, but eat enough of it and you can end up in the hospital, Dr. Metts said.

One much-maligned holiday plant, poinsettia, is not as bad as people think. Back in 1919, a child died in Hawaii after reportedly eating poinsettia leaves, and that death haunted the plant through the years, Dr. Metts said. When modern testing was finally done about 10 or 15 years ago, doctors discovered that you would have to eat about 11/2 pounds of poinsettia leaves, or the equivalent of 75 plants, to get sick.

"So unless you're planning to go down to the church and eat all the plants around the altar, it's probably OK," Dr. Metts said.

The holidays often mean visiting family, and that can create its own problems. Routine traffic stops reveal that parents don't have car seats set up correctly an astonishing nine out of 10 times, said Renee McCabe, a nurse educator at Walton Rehabilitation Hospital and coordinator of the SAFE KIDS program for the area. Most parents just don't take the time to read the instructions or find a model that's compatible with the seat belts they have, and that could be critical, Mrs. McCabe said.

"More children die in motor-vehicle accidents than anything else," she said. "That can make the difference in the life of a child."

Children should always be in the back, and an infant should never be put into a front seat protected by an air bag, she said.

Before packing up for the trip, plan ahead to keep the kids entertained and take along snacks "so they don't get hungry and ornery," she said. Keeping the kids from becoming a distraction during the trip means one less hazard on the road, she said.

On the other end of the trip, grandparents and older relatives who normally don't have small kids around need to kid-proof the house. Make sure prescription medications aren't out in a purse or a counter where kids can get them.

Medicine may look like M&Ms candy to unsuspecting wee ones, Mrs. McCabe said.

It's also a good idea to move household cleaners from floor-level cabinets, like those under the sink, to a higher place, Dr. Metts said. Small plastic clips, available at any hardware store for a few dollars, can make it more difficult for kids to break into cabinets. Even seemingly harmless items such as perfume and cologne can be hazardous to kids, Dr. Metts said.

"Those products contain anywhere from 70 to 95 percent ethyl alcohol," Dr. Metts said. "That's stronger than what you would buy in a liquor store."

If possible, get down and crawl around on the floor, looking to see what might be a hazard at that level. Watch out for extension cords, sharp edges, or knickknacks that can break or end up in a child's mouth. And candles.

"Candles and kids are not a good mix," Mrs. McCabe said. "Kids are drawn to the flame" and then can be burned or knock it over.

It's also a good idea to kid-proof the tree, moving breakable ornaments up higher and if possible anchoring it so a child can't pull it over, Mrs. McCabe said.

Tablecloths for buffet tables should also be avoided for the same reason - kids can pull on them and yank a hot dish off the table and onto themselves, Mrs. McCabe said.

Christmas or Hanukkah gifts can pose their own hazards. Before giving a young child a gift, check the box to make sure it's appropriate for the child's age, Mrs. McCabe said. Be wary of giving gifts with small parts, sharp edges or things like BB guns to older children if they have younger siblings who could get their hands on them, Mrs. McCabe said. The South Carolina Eye Injury Registry has already seen two kids injured by BB guns this year, said Dr. Al Pakalnis, director of the registry and an eye trauma surgeon at Richland Memorial Hospital in Columbia.

Parents should also make sure that proper safety equipment is included with gifts, Mrs. McCabe said.

"Santa's list should include a bike helmet," Mrs. McCabe said.

The holiday season is also a popular time for fireworks, and 30 percent of all fireworks-related injuries occur around this time, Dr. Pakalnis said. Champagne corks also injure at least a couple of people a year, he said.

Safety tips

A few safety tips to keep in mind this holiday season.

Be aware of which decorative plants are toxic and which are not.

Toxic: Mistletoe, holly, Jerusalem cherry, yew, boxwood, Christmas rose and Christmas pepper.

Nontoxic: Poinsettia, magnolia, Christmas cactus, Spanish moss.

After a holiday party, make sure all drinks, cigarette butts and cigar stubs are cleaned up before going to bed, just in case the children awake first.

Be careful what toys you send young children, and check the package for the recommended age. For infants, do not send a crib or playpen toy with a string longer than 12 inches.

For children younger than 3 years old, avoid toys with sharp edges, small or breakable parts and latex balloons, which can be sucked in the windpipe and are difficult to dislodge.

For children younger than 8, avoid toys with heating elements like toy ovens, shooting toys like BB guns or toys with toxic elements such as oil paint.

Parents should always monitor kids playing with fireworks. Stress to kids that fireworks should never be shot at another, and firecrackers should never be detonated inside a container because that creates a bomb. Sparklers are one of the leading cause of fireworks injuries, and parents should always supervise young children with sparklers. Tell children to be alert when others are using fireworks - 60 percent of injuries are to innocent bystanders.

When opening champagne, tilt the bottle away from your face (and from others) and use your thumbs to push out the cork. Or use a towel, making sure it covers the entire top of the bottle, and slowly twist out the cork, watching the tension in the bottle.


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