How to avoid the ER this Winter

Posted at 11:39 AM, Dec 18, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-18 13:39:58-05

  The following article is sponsored by University of Utah Health Care.

Tumbling off a slick roof while hanging Christmas lights, snowboarding into a thicket of jagged trees, slipping on ice — the holiday season is fraught with peril. But what are some of the most common reasons people visit the emergency room in early winter and how can you and your loved ones avoid landing there yourselves? University of Utah Health Care ER doctor Scott Youngquist, M.D., has the answers.

Death by shoveling snow

It’s not many people’s favorite task anyway, but did you know that the cardiovascular demands of snow shoveling can be deadly?

“People exert themselves very strenuously while shoveling snow,” Youngquist said. “Shoveling creates an upper-body workout that’s actually more intense than most lower-body workouts like running up a mountain. Just about every year we find somebody facedown in the snow who’s had a major heart attack.”

Elderly people are the most vulnerable and should be the most careful about listening to their bodies. Feeling fatigued? Take a break. Don’t ignore warning signs such as trouble breathing and chest pain. A clean driveway isn’t worth cardiac arrest.

Be a grandpa’s superhero

Shoveling older neighbors’ walks is doing much more than helping them complete a chore. In addition to allowing them to avoid the risk of heart attack from overexerting, ice buildup on sidewalks and driveways can become a slip-and-fall hazard.

“You will never know that you prevented somebody’s death by shoveling their walks,” Youngquist said, “but in the crazy chain of events that can follow a slip on ice, which can lead to a hip fracture, which can lead to complications — you actually may be saving someone’s life.”

Don’t hand the snowmobile keys to a ‘tween

“We don’t allow them to drive cars for a reason,” Youngquist said. “They’re just not as smart and coordinated as people over age 16, but for some reason we give them the keys to ATVs and snowmobiles and expect them to navigate much more hazardous terrain than a street.”

Youngquist recommends supervising younger snowmobilers, preferably riding with them on the machine while coaching them.

Strap on a helmet while skiing, snowboarding, sledding and snowmobiling

What’s that you say? You’re an elite moguls skier who’s mastered all the black diamond courses?

“Often, people who are really good skiers don’t think they’ll get hurt,” Youngquist said. “Well, there are a bunch of other skiers on the mountain who are creating hazards for you. A body colliding into yours can cause significant head trauma.”

Broken knees and ankles can be repaired more easily, but a broken head is a more dangerous and complicated injury. Consider wearing a helmet this year when participating in fast-paced winter sports.

Toasters, lawn mowers and snow throwers

If this were the classic game show “The $25,000 Pyramid,” the correct answer would be “Things you should never stick your hand in.”

“Snow thrower injuries are very common,” Youngquist said. “Snow throwers are a particular hazard when they clog. People’s natural inclination when something clogs is to stick their hand in there and try to pull out the thing that’s jamming it. This is often successful. The only problem is, after you unjam it, blades start to turn again and can mangle an extremity.”

Instead of your soft, fleshy, dominant hand that you need for, well, most stuff you do — Youngquist advises using a long stick for unclogging. And be sure to completely turn off the machine first.

Warding off the flu

“We haven’t seen a lot of flu yet,” Youngquist said, “but it’s coming.”

The flu is not fun for anyone — but for older people and individuals without strong immune systems, the flu can land them in the ER and it can even be deadly.

“We recommend that everyone get their flu shot — even if they’re young and healthy,” Youngquist said. “If you go on a bus and you touch the rail, and then an elderly person touches it who didn’t get a flu shot — that person can end up with the flu because of you. Getting vaccinated helps protect the most vulnerable people in society.”

Be careful up there

Trying to outdo your neighbors’ decorations by putting up an elaborate lights display of your own? If you plan to climb onto your roof, do it in the daylight and early in the season before the temperature drops, Youngquist advises.

“If you’re on the roof, tie yourself to something,” Youngquist said. “That way, if you do slip, you won’t hit the ground.”