Avoid the Emergency Room this Holiday Season

Dec 23, 2011, 4:18 PM, Posted by

The holiday message from NewPublicHealth is: stay safe.

A recent report from the University of California at San Francisco finds that emergencies spike during the holidays for a number of reason, including overindulgence and delayed care.

Heart-related deaths increase by 5 percent during the holiday season. Fatal heart attacks peak on Christmas, the day after Christmas, and New Year’s Day, according to a 2004 study in the journal Circulation.

“The holidays are a time when we really increase the amount of salt and fat we eat. Most people don't notice the difference. However, there are certain people -- for example, those with heart failure -- for whom the slight increase in salt intake could result in big problems,” said Ameya Kulkarni, MD, a cardiology fellow with the UCSF Division of Cardiology.

UCSF physicians say another excess that fills the emergency room during the winter holidays involves binge drinking. On New Year’s Eve 2010, the UCSF emergency department saw a 50 percent jump in the number of ER visits from the year before. Of that, 70 percent were for alcohol admissions.

UCSF's Emergency Room Medical Director, Steven Polevoi, MD, says that typically binge drinking patients are so intoxicated that they aren’t able to walk or talk. They can lapse into unconsciousness, have trouble breathing and sometimes even die.

And drunken patients can impede the care of others because no medicine can reverse intoxication. “We must wait until their blood alcohol level decreases and that’s a slow process,” Polevoi said. “Basically we are left with lots of patients in semi-conscious states. They often spend six or eight hours with us until they’re sufficiently sober to go home.”

Bonus to Help Prevent Emergencies: The American College of Emergency Physicians has a good primer on emergency care on its website and gives additional advice on safety for older people, travel and home.

Have a safe, happy and above all healthy holiday.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.