Pine needles penetrating lungs and an amputated finger: Scientists reveal Christmas health hazards

Alexandra Thompson
·4-min read
interior christmas. magic glowing tree, fireplace and gifts
Christmas is a magical season for many, however, 'the most wonderful time of the year' has proved to be dangerous in the past. (Stock, Getty Images)

“The most wonderful time of the year” can come with its own set of health hazards, scientists have warned.

While sending loved ones cards may be a traditional way of spreading Christmas cheer, a woman amputated her finger in 1999 while posting a greeting through the spring-loaded flap of a letter box.

The festive season is also littered with toddler choking hazards, like confetti stars and seasonal ornaments.

Christmas trees may seem a harmless way of brightening up the home every December, however, the firs are known to trigger irritating rashes for some.

Reports have even emerged of the trees’ needles being swallowed, penetrating the lungs.

Read more: How to build resilience in children amid a coronavirus Christmas

Writing in The BMJ’s Christmas issue – “a mix of quirky comment articles, light-hearted features and peer reviewed original research” – scientists from the universities of Oxford and Birmingham concluded festive revellers should “stay safe, keep calm, carry on and enjoy a very Merry Christmas”.

Hanging Christmas lights has resulted in some nasty falls. (Stock, Getty Images)
Hanging Christmas lights has resulted in some nasty falls. (Stock, Getty Images)

Christmas hazards go back as far as 1876, when a man developed arsenic poisoning after painting festive cards “with colours chiefly of a bright green”.

In more recent times, decking the halls with lights has resulted in falls from ladders, which tend to “tip when you’re tipsy”, warned the scientists.

Christmas tree lights, decorations and confetti have all found their way down toddlers’ airways, requiring surgery in some cases.

Those who pine for a tree may also find themselves developing an itchy rash, known as contact dermatitis.

The needles can even penetrate the airways if swallowed, leading to breathing difficulties, while a branch in the face could result in a corneal abrasion – a scratch on the eye’s clear surface.

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Christmas presents, particularly the furry kind, may also “pose unforeseen dangers”.

A gifted hamster in 1975 resulted in a lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus outbreak in New York, affecting 57 people.

In severe cases, the “rodent-borne” infection can cause brain or spinal cord inflammation, however, it’s not usually serious and less than 1% of patients typically die.

Reports have also emerged of people receiving Haitian bongo drums, some of which had anthrax-causing bacteria in their goatskin hides. Inhaling anthrax spores is often deadly, even with treatment.

Thankfully, the risk of contracting “syphilis by toys”, like trumpets, has “receded” since the BMJ flagged the issue in 1879.

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Christmas is often associated with calorie-laden indulgences.

A 1946 Christmas pudding was said to contain more than 58,000 calories, 20 times the daily recommended limit, despite post-war rationing being in place.

The BMJ commented at the time, “the mind is enriched and tranquil after such a meal”.

A 1986 study of six volunteers found their cardiac output – the amount of blood pumped by the heart per minute – temporarily increased after a “standard festive meal of poultry, mince pies and a glass of wine”.

Nevertheless, experts have repeatedly warned against weight gain amid the festive celebrations, with obesity being linked to heart disease, depression and even certain cancers.

Read more: Normal Christmas ‘not a good idea’

Food poisoning is another concern, with “Christmas wrapped chocolate balls” leading to a salmonella outbreak in the US and Canada in the early 1970s.

What’s more, 97 people caught the norovirus after eating a salad at the National Institute of Public Health-National Institute of Hygiene’s Christmas reception in Warsaw in 2012.

Excessive alcohol intake has been linked to a host of health complaints, including atrial fibrillation.

Known as “holiday heart syndrome”, atrial fibrillation is defined as an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate, which raises the risk of a stroke.

One study found more than one in five (22%) atrial fibrillation cases throughout a year occurred between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.

In warmer parts of the world, many take advantage of a sunny Christmas Day to enjoy some outdoor pursuits.

In 1900, “a most serious accident” befell Major Manifold of the Indian Medical Service, who was severely injured during a tiger hunt on 25 December.

Rather less dramatically, Christmas is associated with a rise in jet ski accidents in Australia.

The Oxford-Birmingham scientists stressed their report was largely based on anecdotal sources, with no “strong evidence of widespread adverse effects”.

“So we will leave you to decide whether the benefits of Christmas outweigh its harms,” they wrote.

The scientists concluded: “Stay safe, keep calm, carry on and enjoy a very Merry Christmas!”

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