How to stay out of the ER this holiday season: advice from an emergency medicine doctor


The holiday season is stressful enough without having to try to fit a visit to the emergency department (ED) in your schedule. Getting medical care on a major holiday can be especially difficult because most, if not all, offices and urgent cares are closed. This can make the ED wait longest around the holidays. Here are some tips to keep you out of the ED this holiday season.

1. Make sure your medications are refilled. I can’t tell you how often people discover they have run out of their medications on holiday. If you are traveling, your medications and medical devices should be the FIRST things you pack. If you come to the ED for a refill, it is likely you will have a very long wait while we take care of the most seriously ill people first.

2. Consult with your doctor before the holiday if you have an illness or injury. It’s two days before Christmas, and you feel like you might be coming down with a cold. You have asthma. Now is the time to call your doctor and discuss a “what-if” plan. Is there something you can do now to avoid a crisis on Christmas? Coming up with your own “what-if” action plan for the holidays can go a long way to avoiding an unnecessary visit to the ED.

3. Participate in activities safely. Make sure you wear the appropriate safety equipment, like helmets, when skiing. If you are sledding, choose a location free of obstructions. Keep your eyes open even if you are not sledding. I have seen bystanders wiped out by people who could not control their sled. I’ve seen children lose control of their sled and ram into a tree.

Make sure winter snow removal equipment is serviced and in working order before you need it. And, please don’t use your hand to clear an obstruction in your snow blower. You will get injured. You will end up in the ER.

4. Be mindful of who you are around when you’re sick. The cold weather allows for viruses to thrive because they survive on surfaces longer, more people are sick, and we are in close proximity to each other because we’re driven indoors for more activities. What is simply a cold for you can turn into a life-threatening illness for the very old, very young, or chronically ill. Avoid close contact and make sure to wash your hands frequently if you are sick and around other people. Think twice about going to that holiday party if you are coughing a lot, have a fever, have vomiting or diarrhea, or if you think you have the flu. This is also a good time to remind you to get your flu shot. 

5. Utilize other sources of care like telehealth or urgent care for advice. If you find yourself in need of urgent medical advice, your first call should be to your primary care doctor. If you have trouble getting through (let’s face it, they’re really busy over the holidays as well), investigate any nearby urgent care centers that may be open or telehealth options by using the internet. If you feel you have a life-threatening emergency, please simply come to the ED, holiday or no. That’s what we’re here for!

6. Investigate where you can get medical care if you are traveling. If you are traveling for the holidays, do some research as to where the nearest urgent care or hospital is located. If you or your child have special medical needs, make sure you have a quick chat with your doctor before leaving for your trip.  Know which hospitals near your destination have the resources to take care of an urgent problem.

Prepare a medication and medical history list, a copy of your labs or EKG, if you have a history of problems in this area, and a list of your doctors and their phone numbers, advance directive and health care proxy forms. If you are from out of town, it is extremely unlikely we can access your medical records, especially on a holiday or after business hours. There are additional easy ways to manage your medical information using the technology in your hand.

7. Watch out for hazards when traveling. Your home may be safe for your children, but when you are traveling, be aware of unseen hazards. Make sure that other people’s medications, alcohol, and firearms are secured and out of reach of children and adolescents. If you have young children, keep an eye out for choking hazards. Be aware of potential exposure to environmental and food allergens. Make sure that those around you are aware of allergens that need to be avoided.

8. Be aware of how the holidays may affect your mood and stress you out. Even though the holidays are supposed to be a time of happiness, they are often a time of stress and sadness. Be aware of how the holidays are making you feel. If you have a pattern of becoming depressed or anxious around the holidays, confide in your friends, family or health providers early. There is nothing wrong with you if you aren’t in the “spirit” of the holidays and I guarantee you that others feel the same. Here are some tips you can follow to help manage stress during the holidays.

The holidays are meant to be enjoyed, but we all know that this is also a stressful time of year. Keep yourself healthy by trying to stick to your routines. Indulge in the pleasures of the season, but plan out how you are going to do this in moderation. Get the proper immunizations, wash your hands, and avoid hanging out in crowds if you or others are sick. Have all of your medications and medical devices available to you. Most of all, have a happy and healthy holiday season!

Irene Tien is an emergency physician and can be reached at My Doctor Friend.

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