Why some people end up in the ER on Thanksgiving — and how to stay safe

The main reasons people visit the ER on Thanksgiving.
Many patients who rush to the emergency room on Thanksgiving tend to be there due to holiday-related hazards. Here's how to avoid them. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images) (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)

Thanksgiving Day often involves family, friends, food and football, yet sometimes the cooking, eating and traveling frenzy over the holiday weekend can lead to an unexpected trip to the emergency room.

“There is usually light volume on Thanksgiving Day, but post-Thanksgiving dinner is when we usually see a surge in the ER,” Dr. Poonam Desai, an osteopathic physician who is board-certified in lifestyle medicine and emergency medicine, tells Yahoo Life.

Dr. Kelly Dougherty, a health care clinical instructor at the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Emergency Medicine at NYU Langone Health, agrees. “As people gather, they spread their germs,” she tells Yahoo Life. “When they head home, they take those germs with them and can develop symptoms of infection, like COVID or influenza, a few days later.”

Yet many patients who rush to the emergency room on Thanksgiving tend to be there due to a holiday-related hazard, notes Dougherty. Here, both medical experts highlight the top reasons why people land in the ER on turkey day, as well as offering advice on how to stay out of the hospital over the holiday weekend.

Cuts and burns

With all the slicing, dicing and carving taking place in the kitchen, injuries to the fingers, hands and arms top the list. “We see a lot of cuts in the ER not only from knives, but also from people slicing their fingers on the lid of a can while opening it,” says Dougherty.

If you do cut yourself, she says, grab a clean paper towel and apply pressure for 15 to 20 seconds. “Any wounds deeper than a few millimeters might require medical evaluation for stitches and maybe an updated tetanus vaccine,” she says.

Burns caused by out-of-control flames in the kitchen are the other top concern. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Thanksgiving is the peak day for home cooking fires, with more than three times the daily average. In fact, on Thanksgiving Day 2021, an estimated 1,160 home cooking fires were reported to U.S. fire departments — a 297% increase over the daily average.

If you need to treat a minor first-degree burn, the American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends immediately cooling down the burn site by either immersing the area in cold water or covering it with a cold, wet compress for at least 10 minutes. Then apply petroleum jelly (don't use toothpaste, butter or topical antibiotics) to the burn and cover with a bandage.

How to stay safe

“A good way to avoid these types of accidents is to prep in advance so you are not rushing the day of the event,” suggests Desai. Also, consider asking others for help (to lighten your load) while also kindly asking your guests to stay out of the kitchen while the chefs are working (to avoid any distractions). Furthermore, refrain from multitasking while chopping carrots, opening a can of cranberry sauce or stirring the turkey gravy on the gas stove. “Be mindful,” says Desai.

The American Society for Surgery of the Hand offers turkey-carving safety tips, such as: Carve away from yourself, never toward yourself, and place your free hand opposite the side you’re carving toward. Sharpening knives before Thanksgiving can help eliminate the need to carve with force. Also, use an electric knife if you have one to carve the turkey, and cut the bird’s bones and joints with kitchen shears instead of a knife.

To prevent house fires, the NFPA stresses the importance of remaining in the kitchen while food is cooking on the stove, as well as checking on the turkey frequently as it cooks in the oven. When frying or sautéing, keep hot oil from splattering and burning skin by gently adding the oil into a pot or pan, followed by slowly increasing the oil's heat until it reaches the desired temperature.

The association also warns against using a turkey fryer that requires cooking oil, since these machines need large amounts of oil at extremely high temperatures.

Abdominal pain

The most common culprits of stomach pain on Thanksgiving are overindulging and food poisoning. At hospitals, says Desai, doctors may see things like indigestion, which means fullness with a burning sensation after eating; heartburn, also known as acid reflux and involving a burning feeling in the chest or throat; and gastritis, which is inflammation of the stomach lining. Many of the symptoms overlap, such as stomach pain, cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Burping is another sign of overeating, while a low-grade fever could indicate food poisoning.

“If you happen to eat something that does not agree with you, monitor your symptoms,” says Dougherty. “If at any time you are not able to drink water and keep yourself hydrated, you might need a medical evaluation.”

And then there’s drinking one too many glasses of wine, which can impair both physical and mental abilities. “Alcohol contributes to millions of ER visits a year, and indulging in alcohol puts you at higher risk for any number of injuries that can land you in the ER — falls, head injuries, cuts and fractures,” warns Dougherty.

How to stay safe

Pace yourself and pay attention to everything you put onto your plate and into your glass. If you suffer from heartburn, consider skipping any dishes that are fried or contain spicy flavorings like chili powder or red pepper, advises Desai. If you’re concerned about overdrinking, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests learning the standard drink sizes so you can count your alcoholic beverages accordingly.

In order to prevent food poisoning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises washing your hands, work surfaces and utensils before, during and after preparing foods. Separate raw turkey, chicken, other meats, seafood and eggs from ready-to-eat foods. Use a food thermometer to ensure that poultry and other meats have reached a safe internal temperature. For example, turkey should reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit. And make sure your refrigerator is set at 40°F or below and your freezer at 0°F or below.

Heart palpitations

What with hosting a big event, grieving loved ones who are no longer here to celebrate, remembering upsetting holidays from the past, dealing with the madness of holiday travel or sitting across the table from a not-so-favorite relative, it’s no wonder that Thanksgiving Day can trigger an elevated heart rate.

“The holidays can be a stressful time for many of us, so we tend to have an uptick in stress-related symptoms, such as anxiety and panic attacks,” says Desai. She adds that increased stress can exacerbate preexisting mental health conditions, such as depression, as well as physiological ones, such as asthma or chest pain.

According to a 2022 poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, 31% of adults reported that they expected to feel more stressed during the upcoming holiday season compared with the previous year.

How to stay safe

Begin with making use of a powerful two-letter word. “Say no to gatherings and to people that may make you uncomfortable or contribute to increased stress levels,” suggests Desai. She also recommends doing less. “When it comes to the holidays, many people feel they need to do a lot, especially with the pressure of having a social-media-like holiday.”

The Anxiety & Depression Association of America advises that you plan and confirm all travel details the day before leaving, avoid overscheduling yourself, refrain from alcohol and drugs and practice stress-reducing techniques, such as slow, deep breathing, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation.

Car accidents

“Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel times of the year, so there tends to be increased road traffic, sometimes coupled with bad weather, that can lead to increased traffic accidents,” says Desai.

The American Automobile Association projects that 55.4 million travelers will head 50 miles or more from home over the 2023 Thanksgiving holiday travel period. The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that 57,800 injuries from car crashes will require medical attention during the upcoming four-day holiday weekend. In November 2021, 36% of fatalities reported during Thanksgiving travel involved an alcohol-impaired driver.

How to stay safe

Whether you’re heading to the airport, the train station or someone’s home, Desai says you should give yourself plenty of time on the road so you’re not worried about being late, which will increase the odds of driving over the speed limit. In its latest press release, AAA reports that INRIX, a provider of transportation data and insights, expects Wednesday, Nov. 22, to be the busiest day on the road during the Thanksgiving travel period, with average travel times as high as 80% over normal in some metro areas. INRIX recommends leaving in the morning or after 6 p.m. to avoid the heaviest holiday congestion.

“Do not drink and drive, and always wear a seat belt,” Desai says. The NSC predicts that an estimated 201 lives will be saved this Thanksgiving weekend thanks to seat belts.

Above all, as Dougherty points out, “if you are feeling sick, stay home.” She reminds parents with babies that the lungs of infants are vulnerable to RSV, a respiratory virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages. “For those of us non-caretakers who are interacting with infants, be sure to wash your hands and avoid contact with a baby if you’re feeling under the weather,” she says.

Last but not least, remember not only to bring any medications you’ll need while away for Thanksgiving, but also to have an updated list of prescription drugs in your wallet or on your phone on the off chance that you land in the ER.