Navigating an emergency room can be tough work any time of year. But it's especially fraught during the holidays, when you might be far from home or entertaining out-of-town visitors.

Ask any emergency room physician and chances are he or she will tell you that traffic spikes this time of year, in large part because heart attacks, house fires, and falls around the home increase during the holidays.  

To help you, we've put together a rundown of the basics: how to avoid the E.R. holiday rush, when it's wise to go, and the right steps to take if you find yourself in a hospital at holiday time. 


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Prevent Holiday Emergencies

Follow these three rules to safeguard against the most common holiday medical emergencies:

Indulge but don't overdo. The holidays tend to be all about excessive consumption: more alcohol, more salt, more sugar (more food in general!) than usual. So it's no surprise that the biggest cause of holiday E.R. trips has to do with overindulgence. Avoid this pitfall by opting for moderation, especially when it comes to caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and fatty foods.

If you have diabetes or a heart condition, remember that the rules of healthy living and the consequences of poor choices aren’t suspended for the season.

Be careful hanging that mistletoe, arranging those holiday lights, and walking over that patch of ice. According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), 12,000 to 15,000 people end up in the emergency room every holiday season as a result of accidents related to decorating.

Don’t be one of them. Make sure any ladder you climb is on a firm, level surface; always have someone spot you; and don’t drink and climb! (You should apply the same level of caution when walking outside on icy ground, especially in the dark.) And see CPSC's tips on safe decorating

Plan ahead. Your doctor and pharmacy may have shortened hours during the final weeks of December. So if you have a chronic condition or need medical attention regularly, remember to get your prescriptions filled and to check in with your regular doctors before they (or you) head out on vacation.

It's also a good time to resolve any lingering concerns about what you can and can't do during the celebrations to come.

In addition, make sure that you know whom to contact if your regular healthcare providers will be unavailable.

Know When to Go to an E.R.

It can be a tough call to make under normal circumstances: Should you head to an emergency room or will urgent care—or medicine-cabinet staples such as antacids and aspirin—do? The decision gets even trickier during the holidays, when emotions tend to run a bit higher and many doctors are on vacation. Here's a good rule of thumb:

Stick with urgent care for sprained muscles, broken bones, and cuts that need stitching up. 

Go to an emergency room for any symptoms that are cardiac or neurological in nature: chest pains, trouble breathing, dizziness, fainting, or sudden unexplained numbness, especially on just one side of the body. You should also go straight to an E.R. if you are bleeding uncontrollably. (And see our Choosing Wisely page for how to avoid unnecessary treatments once you're there.) 

Emergency Room Etiquette

If you do end up at a hospital, take steps to keep yourself (or the family member or friend who needs emergency care, if that's the case) calm.  

Be prepared to wait. Bring a cell-phone charger and something to read or watch. If you're at the E.R. with a child, bring an item or two to keep him or her distracted, such as an iPad

Stay off your cell phone, especially when the doctor is examining you or someone nearby. If you must make or receive an urgent call, keep it short, or step into the lobby. 

Remember the spirit of the season. Doctors and nurses are people too; it's also their holiday season, and they've foregone celebrating with their loved ones in order to treat you or your loved ones. (Yes, it's their job. But still). If there's a time to employ the golden rule, it's now. Even in the emergency room, a little holiday cheer can't hurt. 

Tips for Travelers

The above recommendations apply, but if you'll be away from your home state or outside the country, be sure to do the following as well:

Read the fine print. Make sure your insurance or traveler's insurance covers emergency care in the facility you've chosen. Ask specifically about the E.R. doctors. Many emergency rooms employ freelance physicians who may not accept your insurance—even if the hospital itself is in your insurance network. That can lead to unexpected medical bills for you.

Pack it right. If you suffer from a chronic condition or use any medication regularly, write down your diagnosis, treatment, and healthcare provider information, and have that with you at all times (including on the plane). Keep your medications in a carry-on bag when flying, so you don't lose them if checked luggage goes missing. 

Get the digits. Know how to call the equivalent of 911 wherever you are. If you're traveling overseas, make sure you also know the number for the American Embassy. You can often call on embassy staff in the event of an emergency.