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Millions of Americans will travel to visit loved ones or take a vacation at holiday time. Along with the fun and excitement come hazards that may not be present at home.
Carbon monoxide: Your home should have a properly functioning carbon monoxide (CO) alarm near every sleeping area. Carbon monoxide, commonly referred to as "the silent killer", is a colorless, odorless gas. Common sources other than fires include faulty heating and boiler systems, gas appliances, blocked flues and chimneys and vehicle exhaust. Exposure to high levels of CO may cause headache, dizziness, chest pain, weakness, confusion, loss of consciousness, permanent neurological injury and even death. People at higher risk of CO poisoning include infants, young children, the elderly, and pregnant women.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 41% of reported cases of CO exposure occur during the winter. Increased use of home heating systems, exposure to car exhaust by those stranded during blizzards, use of gasoline-powered generators after winter storms, and indoor use of charcoal grills, kerosene stoves and other types of space heaters contribute to these increased poisonings during the winter months.
The risk of CO exposure remains high during travel. Not all states have laws requiring CO alarms in hotels, and those laws may not require a CO alarm in each room. Avoid tragedy. When staying in hotels, apartments or others' homes, take your own battery-operated travel CO alarm with you.
Poison-proofing while traveling: Though you may have child-proofed your own home, these protections are probably not in place when you leave home. When staying in a hotel, take a few minutes to inspect and child-proof the room. Look under beds and furniture for stray pills or foreign bodies that may pose a poisoning or choking hazard. Keep medications and personal hygiene items such as mouthwashes, including those provided by the hotel, out of the reach of children.
But what if you are taking your small children to visit grandparents who have not had little ones around for a long time? Their homes may not be child-proofed. Discuss your concerns, diplomatically, in advance. Emphasize that child-proofing makes the whole visit more fun for everyone by limiting time having to use the word "no" with the children. Offer to bring your own child-proofing supplies and then make sure to take them with you.
Older persons may be more likely to have unsecured medications in the home. Medications left in sight of small children, often in pill-minders or other containers that are not child resistant, are a major poisoning danger. Most emergency room visits for pediatric medication poisoning in children age 5 and under are due to the child taking the medication themselves. Opioid-containing medications (such as morphine, codeine and oxycodone), muscle relaxants, sleeping pills, diabetes pills, and heart medications are especially dangerous for children.
Alcohol: Holiday celebrations often include alcoholic beverages. Ensure that there is a designated child "watcher" during the party. Small children are curious. Many alcoholic beverages at parties are sweet and tasty. A small child can be poisoned by drinking alcohol, resulting in excessive drowsiness, vomiting, even decreased breathing and coma.
Clean up immediately after holiday parties. A young child may wake up early the next morning and drink leftover alcohol, eat cigarettes, or choke on leftovers.
Speaking of alcohol at holiday celebrations, how often have you heard, "Don’t drink and drive"? Take this advice to heart. You may be visiting an area with which you're not familiar, adding even more danger. Make sure there's a designated driver who has pledged not to drink any alcohol on that occasion. Stop drinking alcohol a few hours before the party ends, keep well-hydrated with non-alcoholic beverages such as water or soda, and eat some food. If you have been drinking and need a ride, call a sober/safe ride service which offers free cab rides to your destination on some holidays.
Button batteries: The holiday season means many more toys and other gifts around children that contain button batteries - such as watches, remote controls, lighted ornaments, singing greeting cards, calculators, flameless candles, and innumerable other products. You may think that there are no button batteries in your home or the homes or other accommodations you’re visiting, but think again! Button batteries are virtually everywhere.
When a child swallows a button battery, it may stick in the esophagus and cause a severe burn injury in as little as 2 hours. It may not be immediately apparent that an injury has occurred. But the damage to the esophagus, vocal cords and trachea can be severe and require painful treatment and surgery. Search your home, and any home or hotel you visit, especially for anything that may contain coin-size lithium button batteries. Keep these items containing such lithium batteries locked up, or place heavy tape such as duct tape over the item to secure the battery compartment. If you suspect a child has swallowed a battery, call the Battery Hotline (202-625-3333), then go to the nearest emergency room immediately. If you have any doubt, do not take any chances, act right away.
Enter the National Battery Ingestion Hotline (202-625-3333) into your phone right now. Share this information with everyone you know. You could save a child's life!
Poison Control is standing by, on holidays and every day of the year, 24/7. If you suspect any kind of poisoning, use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call 1-800-222-1222.
Mary Elizabeth May, RN, BA, MPH
Certified Specialist in Poison Information
For More Information
Carbon monoxide and carbon monoxide alarms:
Grandparents and child safety:
Safety Tips for Button Batteries:
Iqbal S, Law H-Z, Clower JH, Yip FY, Elixhauser A. Hospital burden of unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning in the United States, 2007. American Journal of Emergency Medicine. 2012; 30(5): 657-664.
Annest J, Haileyesus T, Clower J, Yip F, Stock A, Lucas M, Iqbal S. Nonfatal, unintentional, non-fire-related carbon monoxide exposures – United States, 2004-2006. Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report. 2008; 57(33): 896-9.