Drunk Driving, Food Cravings, and the Other Dangers of the Holidays

Tumbling off of the roof while trying to one-up your neighbors' decorations sounds like a gag in a movie, but it happens at an alarming rate.

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The holidays have always been a time for food, drink, and merriment. Rich religious traditions aside, there's no doubt that some of us push the envelope of merriment, and this can lead to some undesirable -- and downright dangerous -- outcomes.

Our tendency toward holiday hedonism means that this is also the time of year during which we are most prone to accidents. The holidays can also present a wide range of risks to children, so it is important to keep them away from flames, alcohol, and toys that are not age-appropriate.

Studies and press releases often caution of holiday-related injuries and warn of the dangers of over-indulgence. It's easy to roll our eyes at all these seemingly hyped-up holiday danger stories. But there are actually some very real safety concerns associated with the holidays -- and even more, they seem to be on the rise.

THE LIABILITY OF LIBATIONS

Alcohol often plays a role in the pleasures and dangers of the holiday season. The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) just put out a report showing that the number of alcohol-related driving accidents soars over the holidays. In fact, 40 percent of traffic fatalities between Christmas and New Year's involve alcohol: for the rest of December the number is much lower, at 28 percent.

The NIAAA reminds people that alcohol can quickly affect people's coordination and judgment, well before the feeling of tipsiness really sets in. They also point out that alcohol also has more lasting effect on the body than many people tend to think -- just because you feel more sober a few hours after drinking, it doesn't mean that you're able to drive. Finally, they dispel the old myth that coffee helps sober you up, so downing a cup and hitting the road is not a good move.

Even drunk walking can be a dangerous activity. Over the period of a year, almost a quarter of people struck by a car had blood alcohol levels at or above the "acceptable level of intoxication." Clearly being drunk impairs one's judgment and could make a person more likely to walk into the flow of traffic without looking or fall down a flight of stairs. Perhaps being drunk itself is really the dangerous activity.

Of course, there are other reasons not to overdo the alcohol at the holidays. As fans of the series Mad Men know, having too much to drink at the holiday party might lead one to get to know a coworker a little too well. Alcohol consumption is linked to a greater likelihood for having unprotected sex, according to a well-timed press release this month from the journal Addiction.

This may sound obvious, but quantifying alcohol consumption and measuring its effect on the likelihood of unsafe sex is difficult. And the study measured it precisely: For every 0.1 milligrams per milliliter increase in blood alcohol level, people had a five percent greater likelihood for engaging in unsafe sex. This is a robust relationship. Alcohol can lead us to make a variety of bad decisions, which can lead to serious injury or to long-term disease in the blink of an eye.

NOT CAVING TO THE HOLIDAY CRAVING

Food is another big holiday risk factor. In the U.S., a weight gain over the holidays is practically an understood and accepted fact of life. When the roast beef, latkes, eggnog, gingerbread men, and pecan pies make their appearances, there's no turning back. And then there's the chocolate. This time of year certainly brings out our weaknesses, and there's a thin line between pleasure and pain when it comes to holiday eating.

Holiday food can cause flare-ups of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which affects 30 million people in the U.S.. The American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy (ASGE) cautions that the risk of GERD goes up over the holidays with "the consumption of fatty foods, tomato-based products, chocolate, peppermint, citrus drinks, and coffee." If you experience chronic heartburn and a sense that swallowing is difficult, you may need to be evaluated by a gastroenterologist and treated.

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Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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