Colombo Adam webFew things can ruin your holiday festivities faster than an unexpected trip to the emergency room. While accidents will happen, St. Luke’s emergency medicine physician Adam Colombo, DO, says you can reduce your risk by knowing some of the more common holiday mishaps and how to avoid them.


Not surprisingly, many people seen in the emergency room on Thanksgiving — our most gluttonous holiday — have a predicament related to food, said Dr. Colombo, Network Vice Chairman of Emergency Medicine. Too much food can cause stomach and chest discomfort or pain, or even contribute to a heart attack. 

However, the most common Thanksgiving emergency is food that gets stuck in the esophagus, the tube that connects the throat with the stomach, he said. Called a “food bolus impaction,” the food gets stuck, either because the piece of food was too big or because the patient has a narrowing of the esophagus.
“When you eat slowly or eat soft foods, it’s usually not a problem until you try to swallow a big chunk of turkey or ham — something that doesn’t mold quite as well to the esophagus,” Dr. Colombo said. “It literally gets stuck halfway to the stomach.” The blockage can be bad enough that the patient can’t even swallow their own saliva and has to spit it out. This problem is more common with older adults, particularly the elderly.


“You want to pick up Mom or Grandma from the nursing home and bring her to a nice family event and you don’t realize that she should be on a soft or pureed diet,” he said. “You give her a chunk of turkey to eat, and she can’t swallow it. It’s an unintended consequence of bringing her out of her typical environment.”
Doing anything unusual, especially when combined with overeating and alcohol use, can be a prescription for disaster.


“Thanksgiving tends to be a day that the family has a home football game, or a neighborhood football game,” he said. “It’s always risky when someone who hasn’t played football for the past year gets and out and runs around the backyard. Injuries happen just from over-exertion or when touch football becomes tackle football.”
When gift-giving is involved, be careful to assemble toys before giving them to children, he said. Unassembled toys can contain small parts. Also, if you have older children and give them a toy to assemble, such as a LEGO® set, be careful that they keep it out of the hands of younger siblings or visiting relatives. Many young children explore their world by sticking things in their mouth or nose and could swallow it or get it stuck.
Traveling has its hazards. People who travel here from out of the area sometimes leave their medications at home and end up in the emergency department with an “exacerbation” of the condition the medication treats. Or sometimes they come to the ER for a prescription refill.
Rural hospitals, such as St. Luke’s Miners Campus, St. Luke’s Lehighton Campus, and St. Luke’s Monroe Campus, see an increased number of vehicular accident victims during the holidays. More often than not, they are people traveling from one area of our region to another.
“People with short commutes tend to think they can make the drive,” Dr. Colombo said. “Maybe they’ve had a little to drink, a lot to eat, and are a little tired. They have only a 20-minute commute and are confident that they can drive ‘with their eyes closed’ but they can’t.”
Other common injuries around the holidays involve decorating. People trimming their trees or hanging lights fall off ladders or roofs. Dr. Colombo advises you to make sure the ladder is on firm ground and to always have a buddy to hold the ladder. Also, be careful of slippery surfaces caused by frost, snow, and ice, particularly if you’re on the roof.


Carbon monoxide (CO) is another hazard this time of year. Caused by improperly-ventilated appliances, such as furnaces and fireplaces, carbon monoxide can cause headache, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, weakness, and confusion. If the exposure is long enough, it can be lethal. Dr. Colombo urges everyone to have a carbon monoxide alarm in their house, particularly when people are sleeping in the basement.
“Carbon monoxide is a silent killer,” he said. “It’s odorless, tasteless, and it’s not visible; so, if you don’t have a CO detector, how you would know if you had elevated carbon monoxide in your house? The seriousness of a CO exposure is absolutely time-related. If you start to feel symptoms and you leave the house and get fresh air, you’ll immediately start to feel better. If your carbon monoxide levels are high enough, you might need oxygen or to be treated in a hyperbaric chamber, which is specialized care only available at certain institutions.” Hyperbaric therapy involves lying in a chamber in which the air pressure is about two to three times higher than normal and breathing pure oxygen.


In conclusion, Dr. Colombo advises, “Be smart. Be safe. And have an enjoyable holiday season.”

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