Christmas Holiday Safety & Poisoning Prevention Tips

Christmas is here and with all the fun associated with this time of year, there are also some hazards to be aware of. Here are a few safety tips from the New Zealand National Poisons Centre

Holiday Plants

If you suspect a plant has been ingested, call the National Poisons Centre. Do not make the person vomit. When possible, have the species name or common name of the plant handy as we are unable to identify plants over the phone. Plants can often be identified by taking a small portion of the plant to your local garden centre.

Christmas Bells - Sandersonia aurantiaca
Grows as a climber. The flowers are commonly yellow, orange, or pale cream in colour and look like bells or lanterns. This plant has a very high potential for toxicity, as it may attract the attention of children, and a small exposure may be dangerous. Common symptoms are severe vomiting and diarrhoea, which can be delayed. Medical attention must be sought.

Christmas Cactus - Schlumbergera spp.
Zygocactus truncatus: Considered non-toxic.

Christmas Lily - Lilium tigrinum, Lilium candidum
Considered non-toxic.

Christmas Trees - Pine, Rata, Pohutakawa
The needles may cause choking, but are non-toxic.

Holly Berries - Ilex spp
The bright red berries are very attractive to children. Nibbling on 1 or 2 berries would not be expected to cause any symptoms. However, swallowing more may result in nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, excitement and weakness. Medical attention must be sought.

Jerusalem Cherry - Solanum pseudocapsicum                                                                                                                 This ornamental shrub has either yellow/green or bright shiny orange-red berries. Flowers are white and star-shaped. If this plant is eaten, symptoms can include vomiting, redness of the skin, drowsiness or restlessness, and hallucinations. Medical attention must be sought.

Poinsettia - Euphorbia spp
The flowers are usually small, and come in a variety of colours. The fruit has 3 grooves that appear to divide the fruit into segments. If many leaves are eaten, a mild stomach upset may occur. The sap may cause a skin rash and should be washed off with soap and water.

Christmas Decorations

Candles consist of wax and synthetic materials, which are non-toxic. Colouring and scents may be added, but these too are non-toxic in the amounts present. If chunks of candle are ingested this may pose a choking hazard to small children.

Tree decorations
These are usually made of glass, thin metal, polystyrene, or wood. If a child swallows a piece of ornament, it may cause choking and/or blockage in the intestines. Sometimes, antique or foreign-made ornaments may be decorated with lead-based paint, although lead toxicity is unlikely from small, one-off ingestions.

Christmas tree preservatives
Preservatives are available commercially and contain a concentrated sugar solution, which is non-toxic. Homemade solutions containing aspirin or bleach can be potentially harmful if a large amount is swallowed.

Gift wrap and ribbons
Pretty wraps and ribbons are in most cases non-toxic. Some foils and coloured gift wrap contain lead so infants should not be allowed to chew on these papers.

Glitter is generally non-toxic.

Tinsel may cause choking or obstruction. Some may contain lead or tin, so have the potential for toxicity with repeated ingestion.

Snow sprays
Fake Snow often contains acetone or methylene chloride, which can be harmful when inhaled. Inhaling the spray in a small, poorly ventilated room may result in nausea, light-headedness and headache. Longer or more concentrated exposures can be more serious. Follow directions on container and ensure good ventilation when spraying. Once dry, the snow particles are non-toxic.

Other Holiday Hazards

If a child ingests any of the following things, ring the National Poisons Centre. In the case of medicines remember to have the name and strength of the medication with you.

Alcohol (e.g. Wine, Beer or Spirits)
Alcohol poisoning is common in children throughout the year. The incidence increases over the holiday season as they are more likely to have access to alcoholic beverages. Children are curious and will often drink the contents of a partially filled glass. Aside from beverages, alcohol is also found in perfumes, aftershave lotions and mouthwashes and care should be taken to keep these products out of reach of children.

Coins in Christmas puddings may cause discoloration or tainting of the pudding. There is also a possibility that someone may inadvertently swallow a coin, especially if smaller coins are used. Coins should either be placed under the plate rather than in the pudding, or alternatively wrapped securely in tin foil and placed in the pudding. If the second option is chosen the diners should be told that there are coins in the pudding to minimize the risk of ingestion. Small coins are unlikely to cause concern if ingested but larger coins may become lodged in the throat or stomach.

Cigarettes & Tobacco
Children are known to eat whole cigarettes, cigars and "butts". Even smoked butts contain enough nicotine to be very dangerous to children. When swallowed, symptoms can result in vomiting, sweating and seizures. Ensure all ashtrays are emptied at the end of the evening and keep them out of reach of children.

Visitors Medicines
Medicines are often easily accessible to children over the Christmas period as visitors come to stay and may leave medications in bags, on a nightstand or in the bathroom. Furthermore, in many cases medications will not be fitted with a child-resistant cap. Watch children more closely in this situation and if people are staying, politely ask them to store medicines out of reach and sight of small children.

Button Batteries
New presents will often come with batteries ready for use. These flat, coin-like batteries are commonly used in watches, cameras, hearing aids and games. If swallowed, they may lodge in the throat or stomach. In cases where they leak, burns may occur. Children may also insert these and other small objects into their ears or nose. In most cases an x-ray will be required to determine the position of the battery in the gastrointestinal tract.

Silica Gel
Silica gel is often found in shoe boxes and other packaging. It is considered minimally toxic, and symptoms are not expected following a one-off accidental ingestion. The main concern with silica gel is if the packaging is eaten, in which case it may create a choking hazard.

From the National Poisons Centre we wish you a Merry Christmas and a safe and enjoyable holiday season.