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

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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.

But exercising a little self-control is likely the better bet: According to the ASGE, the first line of treatment for GERD sufferers is lifestyle changes, including avoiding foods that trigger symptoms, and, lo and behold, eating responsibly.

Here's a good way to bolster that self-control: Move a little. People who regularly ate chocolate found some effective ways to reduce their cravings in a recent study. The study had people in a work environment go on a brisk 15-minute walk or take a rest before engaging in either a low-stress or high-stress project at a desk on which bowls of chocolate lurked.

The people who had taken walks ate about half as much chocolate as the people who simply rested, suggesting that a little exercise may curb craving, snacking, or mindless eating.

This study is a nice holiday reminder of the value of a little exercise. Activity has previously been shown to reduce food intake, likely because it affects levels of the hunger hormones. So, punctuating the holiday festivities with a little exercise -- and exercising some mealtime moderation -- is likely the best way to go.

FALLING IS NOT FESTIVE

Tumbling off the roof while hanging holiday decorations sounds like a gag in a movie, but actually, holiday accidents are more common -- and more serious -- than you'd think. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) found that between November and December 2010, about 13,000 people visited the E.R. for holiday decoration-related accidents. And this was only the accidents that required emergency care -- there were likely others that were managed at home.

Not only is this an alarmingly large number, but it's been on the rise over the last few years: in 2008 and 2009, about 12,000 people visited the E.R., up from 10,000 in 2007. Even more, Christmas tree-related fires caused an average of four deaths per year in 2006, 2007, and 2008, and candle-related deaths over the same period numbered a whopping 130.

Why these numbers are so high is unclear; perhaps it's because people get excited about doing bigger and better in their holiday decorations, or outdoing their neighbors in the unofficial block decoration competition. But the holidays should be about enjoying time with friends and family safely and joyfully, not spending time together in the E.R.

WARNINGS, WARNINGS EVERYWHERE

Clearly the holidays can prompt us to go a bit overboard, compared to how we act the rest of the year. It's easy to caught up in the pull of holiday sales, the seduction of good food and drink, and perhaps the desire to outdo last year's festivities. Why we tend to let go at this time of year is probably a combination of genuine excitement for the holidays and the stress of the holidays. As the research shows, there are some serious health consequences to the holiday madness, from drunk driving to digestive problems to death, in the most severe cases.

The ever-present reminders can feel a bit wearying, but do you really want to spend holiday time burdened with pain, or worry over a loved one, or in the E.R.? As with many things pertaining to good health, care and moderation are generally the way to go. Try to maintain your normal equilibrium to stay as safe during the holidays as you are the rest of the year.

Wishing you happy holidays and a healthy New Year from all of us at The Doctor.

Image: Shutterstock.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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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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