Holiday Health Hazards


The holidays can be holly and jolly – but also potentially hazardous to your health.

snow falling in a street decorated for christmas

Lee Dyer // CC BY-SA 2.0

From winter weather to holiday stress, join Activ Doctors Online’s US medical director Dr. Howard Zahalsky as we discuss the most common holiday injuries, illnesses and general bah-humbug feelings that come with the holiday season.

Winter Weather

When temperatures drop and the skies threaten snow, sleet and freezing rain, it’s easy to see why people become, shall we say, lackadaisical? about their health in the winter. Cold weather throws your body out of whack, affecting how you feel and presents several health hazards.

Slip and Falls

“Oh, the weather outside is frightful,” and the ice and snow on the sidewalk make slip and falls one of the biggest causes of winter-weather related injury, especially for older women. A slip and fall could result in anything and everything, from a bruised backside (and ego, depending on who was watching) to head, back and spinal cord injuries, sprains and even fractures.

If you are an older person, do yourself the favor of having a bone density test. While most surgeries to repair a fracture can be done in as little as an hour, there are a myriad of potential complications that could strike during recovery. “50% of deaths after a slip and fall have nothing to do with the surgery,” explains Dr. Zahalsky, “Being bed bound increases your risk of blood clots, you are susceptible to infections, and the rehab itself is very difficult which can put tremendous strain on your heart – it’s best just to avoid the whole thing entirely.”

Your best defense against slip and falls is to plan ahead. When winter weather is bearing down, make sure you have a plan that includes proper footwear and plenty of salt. Or just stay home, because the fire is so delightful. :-)

Cold and Flu

Upper respiratory tract infections knock millions of people out each holiday season. The most serious of those infections is, undoubtedly, the flu. Fortunately, you can mitigate your risk in just two easy steps!

Read: The Essential (Doctor-Recommended) Cold & Flu Season Survival Guide

Step 1. Get Your Flu Shot

The best time to get your flu shot is in the fall. It actually takes 4-6 weeks for your body to build up a solid resistance to the virus, so if you haven’t gotten your flu shot in December, you’re still at risk.

“The flu has an 8-day incubation period. So there are people out there, looking completely healthy, infecting everyone they come into contact with,” warns Dr. Zahalksy.

Step 2. Wash Your Hands

Routine handwashing – the kind with soap and water – is “the most important hygiene measure in preventing the spread of infection” according to the World Health Organization.

But that’s not how we do it anymore, is it?

“Handwashing takes too long, so everyone walks around with that waterless disinfectant. Which is probably the worst thing you can use,” explains Dr. Zahalksy, “First, it dries your hands out horribly, and combine that with going in and out from cold dry air to warm dry air it can cause painfully dry skin.”

“Second, the FDA has done a meta-study that showed the hand sanitizer – both antibacterial and non-antibacterial) offers little to no protection against upper respiratory tract infections, so it’s actually not protecting you against what your using it for.”

Antibacterial sanitizers have been shown to be an effective supplement (as in, use in addition to) soap-and-water hand washing against the spread of bacterial infections, like pneumonia and some gastrointestinal illnesses, in hospital or elementary school-type settings.

But it is no more effective than regular soap against viral infections like the flu. “In fact,” cautions Dr. Zahalksy, “Using antibacterial soap makes the bacteria that lives on your skin and in your house resistant to the most common antibiotics. Essentially, we’re creating super-bacteria [by overusing antibacterial soaps].”

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

If you live somewhere very cold, you’re probably in the habit of letting your car “warm up” a little before driving. But beware – an Iowa State study found that warming up a vehicle for only two minutes with the overhead door open raised CO concentrations in the garage to 500 ppm. Ten hours after the car had been backed out of the garage, there was still a measurable concentration of carbon monoxide in the garage. Yikes!

Since carbon monoxide has no odor, color or taste, humans have no way to detect the problem until they become ill. On top of that, the symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure are sometimes referred to as flu-like – headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion – and are easily misdiagnosed. Someone who is sleeping or drunk can die from carbon monoxide poisoning before they even have symptoms.

Each year, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional CO poisoning not linked to fires, more than 20,000 visit the emergency room, and more than 4,000 are hospitalized. There have been many stories about whole families dying in their sleep from running a gasoline generator in their homes or garage.

The good news is that carbon monoxide poisoning can be prevented with simple actions such installing a CO alarm, not running your car or a generator inside the house and maintaining all your gas appliances regularly.

Healthy Holiday Eating Habits

After the holidays, you can just feel the extra weight. Gosh, you must’ve gained, what? 5 pounds at least!

christmas cookies

That’s what most people believe, but that does not necessarily mean that they do. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the average weight gain from mid-November to mid-January was less than 1 lb. – significantly less than people thought, though significantly higher than the non-holiday period. Additionally, most people don’t lose the weight after the holiday.

Now, a pound here and there is nothing to worry about, but a pound or two year after year can add up, leading to health problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Heart Disease

“Almost everyone overeats during the holidays, but,” explains Dr. Zahalsky, “It’s not just the turkey, and the brisket, and the roast, and the gravy, and the pie, and the cake, and the fat, and the carbs, and the sugar… it’s the salt.”

Salt is what makes everything taste good. But too much salt disrupts the natural sodium balance in your body, which can trigger a rise in blood pressure. The raised blood pressure caused by eating too much salt may damage the arteries leading to the heart, which could result in coronary artery disease, a deadly condition where lipid plaque (fat) forms a blockage in the heart’s primary blood supply. At any point, that blockage can rupture and cause a heart attack, sometimes without any symptoms of the disease.

Read: You Aorta Know: Facts About Coronary Artery Disease

You can control your risk for heart disease by controlling certain lifestyle factors and minding what you eat during the holidays.


Obesity is a serious health concern. Being obese increases your risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers – the 7th, 1st, 5th and 2nd leading causes of death in the United States, respectively.

Most obesity is due to inactivity and unhealthy diet, though genetics, lifestyle, as well as some medical conditions (most of them very rare) can compound fat storage. Obesity occurs when you take in more calories than you burn through exercise and normal daily activities. Your body stores these excess calories as fat.

If you are obese, reducing your weight by as little as 5-10% can delay or prevent some of these diseases.

Bah Humbug! Or, Mental Health and the Holidays

There are lots of reasons to be stressed during the holidays – shopping, cleaning, entertaining (and paying for it all!), just to name a few. When you’re caught up in the chaos, it’s hard to see a way out.

But there is a way out. Talking can put holiday stress in perspective, as can identifying holiday triggers, such as financial pressures or personal demands, so you can combat them before they lead to a meltdown. With a little planning and some positive thinking, you can find peace and joy during the holidays.

But, if despite your best efforts, you find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. It may be something more serious, like seasonal affective disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder is winter induced depression. It is a biochemical process where your body becomes depressed because of a lack of sunlight. Mammals need sunlight in order for their brains to function properly. “It’s not weakness,” warns Dr. Zahalsky, “these are biochemical problems cause by the lack of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain and just ignoring it can lead to clinical depression and worse.”

Throughout the world the pattern is the same, during the winter the suicide rate spikes. If you notice that you or your loved ones are suffering from seasonal affective disorder, don’t tell them “Buck up” – treat this as the serious medical problem that it is.


Maybe you don’t see your elderly relatives outside of the holidays, but don’t put memory issues aside. Coming around for holiday gatherings gives you the opportunity to notice that dementia may be setting in. For example, your mom may be able to tell you every ingredient that has to go into hear famous stuffing, but not whether or not she added it already…

Other warning signs of dementia include:

  • Challenges in planning or solving problems
  • Difficulty completing a familiar task
  • Confusing times, dates or places
  • Trouble finding the right word
  • Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
  • Changes in mood and personality

Again, do not let the stress of the holidays be an excuse for ignoring serious medical issues. Early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias is an important step in getting appropriate care and support.

How Can Activ Doctors Online Help You Survive the Holidays?

Personal Health Record

Whether it’s a routine checkup or an emergency visit, having quick access to your family’s important health information – such as immunization records, lab results, and screening due dates – puts you in control of your health care. If you’re traveling this holiday season, it makes even more sense to have this information at your finger tips. ADO’s handy Mobile App keeps your personal health information by your side, whenever and wherever you might need it.

Second Medical Opinion

When you were shopping for this year’s must-have holiday gift, first you researched it on Google, cross checked different prices, asked your mom, your co-worker, your sister, your neighbor… just about anybody that would listen! Why wouldn’t you do the same for your health?

When you receive a serious diagnosis and/or your health care provider recommends a serious course of action, it’s smart to get a second opinion. It’s not that you don’t trust your doctor, but being able to lean on the collective knowledge of +1700 specialists can give you the peace of mind to move forward with the best treatment option for you.


If you need non-emergency health advice over the holidays, you can obtain it through a secure audio/video call (similar to a Skype chat), no matter how far from home you travel or how hectic the holidays get. And, if you’re experiencing the holiday blues, Activ Doctors Online offers a robust Telemental program – allowing you to speak to mental health professional discretely and remotely – helping you to bounce back as quickly as possible.

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