'Tis the season to be jolly careful


With a little forethought and a dollop of common sense, you can cut the risk of accidents or illness at Christmas, writes CLAIRE O'CONNELL

Christmas. Whether you approach it with zeal or resignation, you have to admit it’s a time that’s different.

Houses are decked out with festive plants such as mistletoe and holly, kids are racing around with their new toys and – if recent Irish winters are anything to go by – you may find yourself walking to and from parties in snowy conditions.

While the idea is to celebrate, the festive period is not without its hazards. But with a little forethought and a dollop of common sense, you can help reduce the risk of accidents or illness marring the happy occasion.

Don’t eat the decorations

Nothing says “Christmas party” like a sprig of mistletoe over the doorway, but while the cheery-looking plant might be great for stealing kisses, eating it is not recommended. Similarly, holly’s red berries bring festive cheer, but again it’s a case of admiring rather than ingesting them.

Why could eating these Christmas plants make us sick? It’s partly down to their defences, says Dr Noeleen Smyth, a researcher and conservation botanist at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin.

“Plants can’t move around, they can’t get away from predators, so they have physical defences like thorns or prickly leaves, or they contain toxic compounds,” she says. “If a plant makes itself unpalatable to a mammal or an insect it has a better chance of survival.”

Mistletoe and holly berries as well as cyclamen and amaryllis bulbs contain chemical compounds that can result in illness when eaten, says Smyth.

Safe steps for kids

Plants aren’t the only festive additions in the house to keep an eye on. The influx of batteries – particularly the small ones – can be a potential hazard if kids swallow them.

“You have to be careful: when you get the batteries put them into the toy straight away and make sure they are well sealed,” says Prof Alf Nicholson, consultant paediatrician and professor of paediatrics at the Children’s University Hospital, Temple Street, Dublin.

In general, the types of injuries the hospital’s accident and emergency department sees at Christmas tend to be the same as those that occur during the rest of the winter months, he says.

Head injuries, cuts and sprains are the main issues, and there tends to be a “little spike” in the number of incidents around the festive period, says Nicholson.

“Children are off school, at home, they are going from home to relatives’ houses and they are cycling bikes for the first time,” he says. “And not every child wears a bicycle helmet, which is a shame, but most are not too expensive, they are quite cool and it has been proven every were they are introduced that they significantly protect children against severe head injuries.”

Children should also wear high-visibility clothes, have lights on their bikes and avoid areas of heavy traffic. “Most of it is common sense,” he says.

Toys with small parts can be a hazard for small children, who can shove the pieces up their noses or put them into their mouths and potentially inhale them, says Nicholson.

He adds that parents should also safeguard open fires, check their smoke alarms are working, extinguish lights and candles at night, and watch out for children pulling down hot drinks such as tea, coffee and mulled wine.

“Christmas is a happy time, Christmas is a joyful time and it’s a special time for children,” Nicholson says. “And if you take reasonable precautions you can help it to be a safe time for them as well.”

Christmas breaks

If you slip on ice and break your wrist as you break your fall, it might be cold comfort to know it, but the fracture you probably have is named after an Irish doctor.

Abraham Colles was a president of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in the early 19th century. “What he described was a fracture within an inch of the lower end of the radius,” says David Moore, who is consultant trauma and orthopaedic surgeon at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, and Tallaght hospital, as well as president of the Irish Institute for Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgery and a council member of the RCSI.

The injuries that crop up in the winter months include ankle fractures (which are not helped by slippery paths and high heels), as well as wrist and hip fractures, which are a particular risk in people with osteoporosis, says Moore.

Hip fractures tend to be the most serious: “It’s a devastating injury for a huge number of people.”

Moore recommends caution when heading out in winter. “Make sure you wear grippy shoes this time of year, and if your balance isn’t good or your eyesight isn’t great you should be using a walking stick, or bring an umbrella that you can use as a walking stick,” he says.

How to cook a big bird safely

For many households this Christmas, a turkey will take pride of place on the dinner table and in several sandwiches, curries and salads to follow. But the raw bird can be home to some bacteria that could spell trouble if the poultry is not cooked thoroughly.

Campylobacter bacteria can cause food poisoning and they can live in the guts of poultry, so ensure the bird is thoroughly cooked.

It should be piping hot all the way through with no pink meat left and the juices should run clear when the thickest part of the thigh and breast are pierced with a clean skewer.

A study commissioned by Safefood, which was detailed in a 2009 report, put the cooking process through its scientific paces by roasting a number of cavity-stuffed and unstuffed turkeys. It even added salmonella and campylobacter bacteria to test turkeys to see if the cooking times could kill off the microbes.

The piece of research came up with two equations to ensure that the poultry is adequately cooked in an electric fan-assisted oven to kill off the bugs but not kill off the taste.

For stuffed birds (cavity) in all weight categories (including stuffing, which should weigh no more than 10 per cent of the weight of the unstuffed turkey):

Cooking time in minutes =

28 x stuffed turkey weight (kg), plus 108 minutes, at 180 degrees.

For example, 7kg turkey x 28 + 108 = 304 minutes, which is 5 hours, 4 minutes at 180 degrees.

For unstuffed birds in all weight categories:

Cooking time (minutes) = 19 x unstuffed turkey weight (in kg), plus 124 minutes, at 180 degrees.

These cooking times apply to electric fan-assisted ovens only.

You can read more at safefood.eu/christmas/science.html.

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