Staying Safe When Decorating for Christmas

Ice, heights and holiday lights can be a dangerous combination
Parent and child untangling holiday lights.

When the weather outside is frightful, decorating for the holidays can be so delightful. Unfortunately, it can also pose serious dangers.   

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Decorating your house and trimming the tree can be cherished traditions in the winter months for many households. But electrical mishaps and slippery rooftops can really chill your holiday spirit. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates about 147,000 people in the U.S. visit the emergency room each holiday season for decorating-related injuries. 

“Many of the injuries we see associated with holiday decorating are related to falls,” says emergency medicine physician Thomas Waters, MD. “We see a lot of bumps, bruises, back strains and lacerations, too, as well as electrical injuries from faulty light strings.”   

Whether you follow a less-is-more holiday spirit or you’re more of a go-big-or-go-home Christmas Vacation-style kind of decorator, some common-sense safety precautions can help keep you and your family safe this holiday season.

We talked with Dr. Waters for advice on how to safely deck your halls with holiday cheer.  

1. Check your lights 

That clump of knotted holiday lights that’ve been in the basement for the last 11 months may have seen better days. Damaged strings of lights can be a hazard, so you’ll want to look them over with care. 

“When you pull those light strings out from storage, you want to inspect them carefully for frayed wires and make sure that the light bulbs and sockets aren’t cracked,” Dr. Waters says. “Before you plug them in, make sure you don’t see anything that can cause an electrical problem.” 

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In addition to the lights themselves, take a good look at your electrical outlets, particularly outdoor outlets that’ve been exposed to the elements. Outlets that are wet, dirty or have been compromised by the gnawing of the neighborhood chipmunks can be a serious safety risk.

And speaking of outlets — more lights mean more plugs, and more plugs mean more opportunities for electrical injuries. 

“You want to be careful not to overload your outlets or your extension cords,” Dr. Waters warns. “Make sure you have enough extension cords for all of your lights so you’re not trying to plug in multiple sets of lights into one cord. That can present an electrical hazard and a fire hazard.”   

2. Beware of heights 

Some things just don’t go that well together. Icy conditions and tall ladders are two of them. So, you might think twice about whether you really need all those lights on top of the roof. 

“Anytime you’re up high on a ladder, especially outside in the winter when the weather conditions aren’t so great, you’re really putting yourself at risk for a significant fall,” Dr. Waters says. “My recommendation is to leave the high gutters and the peaks to the professionals.”   

Even grabbing a chair to put the star on top of your tree puts you at risk of falling, Dr. Waters adds. 

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Any decorations that require you to get up high should be done with caution. Make sure your shoes have good tread, and use the buddy system whenever heights are involved. No scaling ladders without a spotter. 

3. Handle candles with care 

Lighting candles is an important part of many holiday traditions. But be thoughtful about where you’re burning those candles and for how long. 

Keep your candles away from children and pets. Lighted candles should also stay far away from drapery and other loose fabrics. And, of course, don’t leave your candles burning unattended.  

4. Know what to do in an emergency    

If you’re injured in a holiday-decorating mishap, don’t hesitate to seek emergency care, Dr. Waters advises.  

“If you think you need to be seen, then head to the emergency department,” he says. “Listen to your gut, and use common sense. If you’re concerned you might have a significant injury, it’s always better to get checked out.”

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